Understanding & Using Educational Theories

I’m fascinated by learning theories, the way some people chase meaning in their dreams or the machinations of their football team. Unfortunately just as someone befuddled by their dream world or why their football team is rubbish, when it comes to learning theories I have been clutching at bubbles for over a decade. They look pretty, get my attention as a panacea to my teaching endeavours, but before I’ve had a chance to understand their meaning they go pop. I liked this, but edumenic who produced it are no more:

You’ll still catch me creating mind maps which others seem to enjoy as if through the visualisation I have created clarity and comprehension from something complex – I haven’t. I’d might as well have shared a word cloud. 

I created the above in 2013. If I could find the original I’d provide a legible version. It’ll be out there somewhere. 

This fog of incomprehension relating to learning theories began to clear the other week when my tutor Shantheni Powell pointed me towards ‘Understanding & Using Educational Theories’ by Karl Aubrey & Alison Riley. I am delighted to report that ‘Understanding & Using Educational Theories’ does exactly as it says on the cover. 

The layout is clear and its intent spelt out. There is no need to invest in a dozen or more original texts to understand the authors mentioned – just read the book instead. And until you make the time to read the book here are my notes 🙂 

Best of all, without going too far back in history, the authors show you how the key learning theories have developed, fit together and overlap. They also show how these can be applied successfully in the classroom, workshop or any learning environment. 

All the big names get a mention here: Vygotsky and Piaget, Kolb and Bloom, Lave and Wenger – and a name so common to use in 2020/21 that we can even picture his face – Dylan Wiliam. There’s no Yrojo Engeström – too esoteric, nor Hermann Ebinghaus – this is not supposed to be a history of learning theories, yet Steiner and Montessori get a look in – nor other favourites of mine mentioned like Knud Illiris, Grainnne Conole or Gilly Salmon. 

You’ll find I’ve blogged about the above at length elsewhere. Whether I understood them is another matter – Gilly Salmon is so pragmatic, perhaps too much so to be thought of as a theorist or ‘influencer’. 

With my first time reading ‘Understanding & Using Educational Theories’ I picked out Bloom, Bandura, Kolb, Claxton, William and Dweck for special attention. As I read it a second time some of these may drop aside and others come to the fore – the brain does that. Like friends at university, those you make in the first term you have generally moved on from by the second. 

Claxton and Dweck are new to me, we cannot get enough of the evidence-based voice of William and formative assessment while to miss out Bloom, Bandura and Kolb would be to miss out your fruit and nuts in a Christmas Cake. 

Here’s my short list: 

Benjamin Bloom: Learning through taxonomies

Albert Bandura. Learning through observation.

David Kolb: Experiential Learning Theory

Guy Claxton: Learning Power

Dylan Wiliam: Assessment for Learning

Carol Dweck: Mindsets and Motivation

In the past I got caught up with the lists of ‘Learning Theories A to Z’ (Leonard) with 150 learning theories – the twitcher’s guide, though other authors such as Console (2004) could at least narrow it down to seven theories and a few dozen thinkers. Still too many for Aubrey & Riley though – even with this new edition by adding three new names, they have removed others. What stars. No ‘digital scholars’ in here – yet. Surely names will appear from the gloom of Covid lockdown to show that new theories of learning have developed in the last year. 

I provide choice quotations – cited and ready to drop into a PGCE rationale, observation or reflection. 

I like this by Wiliam on the messiness of teaching ‘ … a complex and messy phenomenon, with a multitude of contrasting facets to take into account which need a reflective and professional approach, involving ‘not just knowing what you do and how to do it. It is also about why you do it’. (p xiii Wiliam, 2008) (p.2) 

Cutting to the chase when it comes to education and learning theory, William feels we should trouble ourselves with only three psychological schools of thought: behaviourism, constructivism, and humanism. 


Wallace, 2008 (p61) expresses what constructivism is about nice and succinctly: ‘the constructivists believe that meaningful knowledge and understanding are actively constructed by learners … which builds on what they already know, causing them to change and adapt and invent ideas’.


The humanism school of thought argues that education should focus on the needs of the individual learner, and that what is important are the aspects of personal and emotional growth. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.3) While Petty (1998 p.8) states that ‘Humanists contend that the purpose of schools is to ‘meet the needs of the individual learner not the other way around’. Though Dewey (    p.8) contends that ‘learning should focus on practical life experiences and social interaction’. 

The role of the teacher has changed

A former vice chancellor of the Open University who didn’t last a year in office before resigning suggested that educators at the OU were not teachers – he was right, but stating it was like removing the stethoscope from around a doctors shoulders and calling them ‘medical care assistants’ or some such. Regardless of the EdTEch we need to think to what degree teaching is ‘facilitating learning’ which is achieved by ‘encouraging and channelling individual curiosity and motivation’. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.X) Surely all along, the results driven environment of teaching makes a teacher a facilitator and co-collaborator of someone else’s text which is designed to get a student across the line based on their project work and exam results? What is more, the teacher cannot get inside the learners head – it is for the student to decide if they want to be taught or not. This is why I like the work of Knud Illiris who reckons that ‘not-learning’ is an active state – one which those at the front-line of teaching may see on a daily-basis. 

For Kolb the ‘knowledge building process’ begins with ‘active experience the groundwork for starting’. (Elkjaer, 2009) 

We need to get our students to think like real scientists or historians. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.16) and be more of a sports coach with them, motivating them to practice, provide the effort and create the gains which comes from teachers  knowing the child very well. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.18) which is what Montessori did. 

I’ve never been convinced of Vygotsky’s view that ‘social interactions are essential for learning to take place’ (p.46) I take my nephew who is autistic by way of example, he prefers his own company, rather like my later father or Greta Thunberg. I wonder if sometimes the opposite applies, that some students learn when the distraction of other people is removed. Thinking about the majority who are social and gregarious is it important to ‘tune with the culture within which they mature’ ? as Keenon, 2002 puts it? 

Would it be better if we took the idea of a child being raised by the village to heart – that those from the local community, rather than outsiders are best able to teach?

We don’t need Wiliam to learn that feedback should be provided on the spot, even if that was a board rubber flung across the room. ‘Feedback should be given instantaneously given in order that children are aware of where they went wrong and can rectify this immediately’. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.79)

Bloom makes the complex impossible. Just when I’ve got the hang of making a poached egg on toast he comes along and tells us there are many, many more ingredients required. 

For me Bloom still looks like a list: 

The cognitive domain taxonomy












Characterising by value

Or value concept

Which is how I came to fall in love with UCL’s ‘Learning Designer’ platform which groups Bloom into seven or eight ideas which are then offered up in a drop-down menu as you build your lesson plan. Bloom is a valuable aid for the planning of lessons, assessments and programmes of study’ (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.90)  just wonder how he has been used over the decades. Are Bloom’s ideas like spices in the herb rack

Learning objectives (Petty 1998: 347)






These are cognitive reproductive and reasoning tasks which involve a deeper learning experience for a student against reproduction tasks: such as proving knowledge, comprehension or application that require low cognitive effort. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.95) 

Bruner – ‘A scaffold to support the efforts of the learner to construct his or her own understanding’ (Olson, 2007:45)

Olson – margins of a complex task to mastery (2007:46)

Albert Bandura 

> observation of cues by others.

  1. Pay attention
  2. Retention
  3. Reproduce
  4. Motivation to perform an action

‘Most of the behaviours that people display are learned either deliberately through the influence of example’ (Bandura, 1971:5) (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.139) 

What, how and why you do a thing

People learn best when they are engaged in first-hand experiences which can later be reflected as through thinking about the details of the experience alongside the feelings and perceptions which emerged during the experience (Hankin et al, 2001) (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.198)

Concrete experience 

Reflective observation

Abstract conceptualisation

Active experimentation 

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Emotional Intelligence

I question to what degree emotional intelligence can be taught when a person failed to gain such ‘intelligence’ growing up as a child. I need to be convinced how and over what period of time children need to have ‘ positive and reasoned experiences’ which are modelled by these significant others they are more likely to have the emotional intelligence to enable them to work under pressure. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.231)

Experience in childhood at home and at school is particularly important because these early belief systems whether functional or dysfunctional can be carried through into people’s lives as adults (Claxton, 2002 :p.231) How does an institution where children our only present for a short period affect their belief systems? To make them:





When a teenage use a ‘split screen’ approach it is because they are watching TV while doing their homework. When A Teacher actively splits their screen, it is to ‘retain a dual focus on the content of the lesson and the learning dispositions that are currently being expanded’. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.237)

Soft creativity

Keep your notes / workings

Keep a blog

Teachers as fallible, inquisitive not know it alls (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.238)

Claxton G & Lucas, B (2004) Being Creative: Essential steps to revitalize your work and life. London. BBC Books.

C16 Dylan Wiliam (p244)

Dylan Wiliam is unavoidable and should be read, listened to and understood. He says there is a need ‘for students to assess themselves and understand how to improve’.

Students should be involved in the choice of tasks. 

Assess each others work

Provide helpful

Comments which would help pupils improve.

By requiring all pupils to respond to questions also increases inclusivity in the classroom (p.253)

Peer assessment was found to be ‘motivating force for pupils, with pupils applying more care to their work knowing that their peers would be assessing it.’ (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.255)

Pupils should be ‘beneficiaries’ rather than victims of testing’. (Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.256)

C17 Carol Dweck

Fixed mindset or growth mindset

Dweck promotes the idea that knowing about how the brain works can foster a love of learning and enhance resilience (Pound, 2009)

Praise that celebrates perseverance, effort, study, hard work and the use of learning strategies (Dweck, 2012) ((Aubrey & Riley 2019, p.267) Brainology

Real learning comes from a lot of hard work (Matthews and Folsom, 2009:22)

“You really tried hard, that was a good way to do it.”


Aubrey. K & Riley. A (2019) Understanding & Using Educational Theories:  (2nd Edition) London, Sage

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