A range of theories of teaching have developed over the past century. The most influential in terms of teaching practices have probably been behaviourism, which underlies a lot of the work on Direct Instruction, and constructivist theories such as those of Vygotsky (1978) and von Glasersfeld (1985) which have been influential in the development of more self-directed learning approaches. While influential, both theories have significant weaknesses and are increasingly being superceded by brain and neuro-scientific research (Muijs, 2008).


Behaviorism Theory of Teaching

Behaviourism is a teaching theory that only focuses on objectively observable behaviours and discounts any independent activities of the mind. Behavior theorist define learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behavior based on environmental conditions.

Experiments by behaviorists identify conditioning as a universal teaching process. There are two different types of conditioning, each yielding a different behavioral pattern.

Classic conditioning occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus. We are biologically “wired” so that a certain stimulus will produce a specific response. One of the more common examples of classical conditioning in the educational environment is in situations where students exhibit irrational fears and anxieties like fear of failure, fear of public speaking and general school phobia.

Behavioral or operant conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced. Basically, operant conditioning is a simple feedback system: If a reward or reinforcement follows the response to a stimulus, then the response becomes more probable in the future. For example, leading behaviorist B.F. Skinner used reinforcement techniques to teach pigeons to dance and bowl a ball in a mini-alley.

There have been many criticisms of behaviorism, including the following:

  • Behaviorism does not account for all kinds of teaching, since it disregards the activities of the mind.
  • Behaviorism does not explain some teaching–such as the recognition of new language patterns by young children–for which there is no reinforcement mechanism.
  • Research has shown that animals adapt their reinforced patterns to new information. For instance, a rat can shift its behavior to respond to changes in the layout of a maze it had previously mastered through reinforcements.

How Behaviorism impacts Teaching

This theory is relatively simple to understand because it relies only on observable behavior and describes several universal laws of behavior. Its positive and negative reinforcement techniques can be very effective–such as in treatments for human disorders including autism, anxiety disorders and antisocial behavior. Behaviorism is often used by teachers who reward or punish student behaviors.

Contiguity Theory

Guthrie’s contiguity theory specifies that “a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement”. According to Guthrie, all learning was a consequence of association between a particular stimulus and response. Furthermore, Guhrie argued that stimuli and responses affect specific sensory-motor patterns; what is learned are movements, not behaviours.

In contiguity theory, rewards or punishment play no significant role in teaching or learning since they occur after the association between stimulus and response has been made. Teaching or learning takes place in a single trial (all or none).

However, since each stimulus pattern is slightly different, many trials may be necessary to produce a general response. One interesting principle that arises from this position is called “postremity” which specifies that we always learn the last thing we do in response to a specific stimulus situation.

Contiguity theory suggests that forgetting is due to interference rather than the passage of time; stimulus become associated with new responses. Previous conditioning can also be changed by being associated with inhibiting responses such as fear or fatigue. The role of motivation is to create a state of arousal and activity which produces responses that can be conditioned.

Contiguity theory is intended to be a general theory of teaching and learning, although most of the research supporting the theory was done with animals. Guthrine did apply his framework to personality disorders. (Guthrine, 1938).


  1. In order for conditioning to occur, the organism must actively respond (do things)
  2. Since teaching involves the conditioning of specific movements, instruction must present very specific tasks.
  3. Exposure to many variations of stimulus pattern is desirable in order to produce a generalized response.

Classical Conditioning

The theory of classical conditioning has its root as far back as the middle Ages of Renaissance. According to Susan Wise Bauer (1999), “Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind”, often referred to mass the trivium. The three stages of the trivium correlate naturally to the growth and intellectual ability of the children throughout their learning careers. Grammar, logic or dialectic, and rhetoric stages compose the trivium of classical education.

The grammar, or Poll-Parrott (Sayers, 1947) stage is the earliest of learning taking place in classical education. The time period this covers is approximately the entirety of elementary school as it used to be called. As Bauer (1999) point out, “these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid.” Students in this age range are eager to learn, where learning is mostly memorization of facts and rules. This memorization is fun for most in this age group (Bauer, 1999).

While students are not solely focused on grammar as they may imply, they are focused on learning all the basics, from arithmetic and multiplication, to simple anatomy and history, to spelling and actual grammar. Dorothy Sayers, the main authority on classical Theory in Education, (1947) states, “anything and everything which can be usefully committed to memory should be memorized at this period, whether it is immediately intelligible or not.” In order to be successful in the following stages of classical education, students must have a firm and solid foundation from the grammar stage.

On the other hand, “A student is ready for the logic stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature.” (Bauer,1999). Regardless of how we know when the a child is ready for this stage, students, at this point, want to know more than just the basic facts; they learned much of ‘what’ in the grammar stage. Now they want to know the ‘who’, ‘how’, ‘where’, and ‘why’ involved in all the concepts discussed in school. Generally speaking, the goal is to continue to build students’ knowledge to such a level that they are able to make logical connections from different fields.

(Bauer, 1999) Teachers must also guide students to do their own thinking and finding of information in order to logically come to any sort of conclusion. In summary of the first two stages: “in the grammar stage, observation and memorization are critical; in the dialectic stage discursive, or logical reasoning are highly important.” (Hart, 2006, pg. 79).

In the final stage the rhetoric stage, will take what students have learned in the first two stages and continue to build on it.

The goal of the trivium and classical education is a rigorous education. This process of training the mind is repetitive and language-based. The grammar stage teaches students all the facts and rules of language and other subjects in school; the logic or dialect stage gives students the ability to connect subjects logically and be able to form logical arguments; lastly, the rhetoric stage builds on the first two and requires students to be able to defend, verbally and in written form, their own ideas. The trivium of classical education was more than enough training during the Middle Ages and some, particularly Sayers, would argue that it is still enough education for life during modern times.

Brain Theory

Especially important in brain theory is the role of memory in learning processes. The memory consists of three parts: the sensory buffer, the working memory and the long-term memory.

The memory works as follows: one’s experiences (tactile, visual or auditory) are registered in the sensory buffer, and then converted into the form in which they are employed in the working and long-term memories. The sensory buffer can register a lot of information, but can only hold it briefly. Some parts of the information in it will be lost, other parts will be transmitted to the working memory. The working memory is where „thinking gets done‟. It receives its content from the sensory buffer and the long-term memory but has a limited capacity for storing information, a fact that limits human mental processes. The working memory contains the information that is actively being used at any one time (Muijs, 2010).

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