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Learning Theories

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Task 1                                                                                                                      

In the early years there are different ways and methods in which we can encourage or help children to learn. These are also known as ‘theories’, which are vital to what the early year’s practitioner thinks to be important for a child’s learning. Below are all the different major theories which are related to children’s development and learning.

Transmission model

  • This theory is based upon the idea that children are ‘empty clay tables’ (Tabula Rasa) and that they are capable of being moulded and shaped by adults. It was first developed by the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). People who work in this way are known as ‘behaviourists’. Transmission model sees people as passive and that they learn through experiences. The transmission model concentrates on nurture and not nature; it is split into two main components, learning theory and sociallearning theory.

Learning theory

  • Classical conditioning:  Pavlov (1849- 1936) worked with dogs, he fed them when the church bell rang or a light was flashed. The dogs salivated when they were fed; eventually they salivated at the sound of the bell or when a light was flashed even if no food was given. This is called the conditioned response.
  • Operant conditioning: skinner the psychologist (1904- 1990) developed Pavlov’s work more and concentrated mainly on modifying and shaping behaviour. He did the same thing by feeding animals but only rewarded them with feed if they did as he asked. This acted as positive reinforcement. So he did the opposite if they did not do as he asked he would give them electric shock which acted as negative reinforcers.

Social learning theory (learning through example)

  • This theory accepts basis of learning theory but emphasises that children learn behaviours through watching adults and imitating them, especially those close or important to them. Children can also learn by imitating other children.
  • A well known social learning theorist was a man named Albert Bandura (1925- ) he found that most behaviours are learned through observation. For example aggression, sex roles or sharing.
  • The social learning theory emphasizes the fact that adults need to show acceptable behaviour towards children as they will model their behaviour e.g. if and adult shouts and gets angry at another adult then children are likely to model this behaviour towards others, and vice versa.

Laissez -faire model (learning just happens)

  • This theory is based upon Rousseau’s (1712- 1778) work he was a French philosopher. He believed that children learn naturally like an opening flower bud and are programmed to learn things at specific times; he also believed that what ever adults did children would also develop (nature). Rousseau thought children would develop regardless if there was a significant influence of an adult or environment or not.
  • There were other psychologists like Fodor(1983) he believed that the development of mental concepts like space, number, time  are ‘wired in’ to structures in the brain which are inborn which makes the adults role limited.
  • Naom Chomsky (1968) believed that children learned complex grammatical structures simply through hearing them being spoken. Chomsky thought that children’s brains have a structure in which allow their language to develop and that children develop new sentences and apply the rules of grammar to them rather than just copying those they have heard. This is often out of children by them making errors in a new situation e.g. ‘sheeps’ instead of ‘sheep’ this applies the common rule of adding an s to a plural.


  • This is the theory which is based upon that of Signum Freud (1856- 1939) who was also known as the father of psychoanalysis. Freud came up with the theory of personality which focuses on the unconscious mind. He sees the child passing through a series of pre-determined psychological stages as the personality develops, which are based upon the child’s level of physical maturation. These stages are called psycho sexual stages as they are part of the human drive to grow, feed, and reproduce. Freud believed that we are all born with unconscious biological instincts, these must be learnt to control. Each one of the stages makes sure children mature and learn control.
  • Oral stage: baby has drive to feed and engage in activities which involve the mouth and lips e.g. sucking, biting. Freud thought that how a child was weaned off breast or bottle would affect them and their future personality.
  • Anal Stage: is when young children need to learn to control their muscles especially their anal muscles. E.g. through potty training. The way in which they are trained is thought to have an effect on their future personality e.g. over strict training leads to a bossy or obsessive personality.
  • Phallic stage: this relates to when children have sexual feelings towards their parents e.g. boys have sexual feelings towards their mother and wish that their fathers did not exist (Oedipus complex) girls also having sexual feelings but towards their fathers (Electra complex). By the age of 5 or 6 years children had to learn to give up these feelings and to identify with the parent of the same sex. Freud thought how children managed this stage could have an impact on future relationships especially with opposite sex.
  • Latency stage: this period covers middle childhood from about six years till puberty. It is a latent period as children are not ready to express their sexuality.
  • Genital stage: this refers to the onset of puberty, when adolescents become more ready for sexual activity.

Social constructivist model

  • This model is based upon the work of Piaget (1896-1980), Bruner (1915- ), and Vygotsky (1896-1934) and is influential to the years. This model originated from the work of Kant (1724-1804) and views children partly as ‘empty vessels’ (transmission model) and partly pre programmed (laissez- faire model) with an interaction between the two. It emphasises environmental, biological, cultural factors and sees children as active participants in their learning and development rather than the adult like the ‘transmission model’.
  • Piaget’s work has had major influence on development psychology and on learning and education. He believed that from birth, the child actively chooses and interprets information from the environment they also have the ability to adapt and learn. Piaget stated children go through a series of stages mental or cognitive, these happen always in the same order but at different rates. He also emphasized that the child was an active participant in their own learning. Below are the four stages of cognitive/mental development:
  • Sensori-motor (birth to three years): at this stage the child is born into the world and is small and helpless however they can move with basic reflexes and senses, leading to more complex actions such as hitting and grasping.
  • Pre-operational (two to seven years): during this stage a child begins to represent actions with symbols. Words begin to represent objects and people in the child’s thinking. At this stage children are thought very different to the way adults think.
  • Concrete-operational (seven years to twelve years): their intelligence is now more symbolic and logical. They still however need to relate their thinking to concrete objects and activities e.g. putting objects away in height order or the difference between similar objects like roses and daisies.
  • Formal-operational (twelve years onwards) :

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