On Psychology

What educators believe about how human brains function and what causes brains to change is one of the most important factors that determines how they organize curriculum and deliver instruction. Even those educators who claim to be unaffected by psychology or learning theory (in my experience a large majority of teachers eschew theory), their teaching is grounded in someone’s concepts of psychology and how human brains function.  

Much teaching is grounded in behaviorist psychology which posits learning occurs through conditioning. Students adopt the behaviors of others who have learned largely through the rewards and punishments meted out by teachers. Harris and Williams (2016) conclude behaviorist-inspired instruction that dominated schooling and teaching in the 20th century, was adopted because it fit the factory model of education that emerged to prepare for industrial age organizations and businesses. Further, it was well-suited to the measurable outcomes that also dominate education policy. 

Behaviorism is only one concepts of how learning occurs, and many cognitive and learning scientists concur it does not accurately explain and predict most of what happens in schools and classrooms. Cognitive psychology and social constructivist theory are the alternatives to behaviorism that better describe human learning than behaviorism, but Harris and Williams (2016) suggested cognitivism was marginalized “as interesting theory but not one that could be operationalized with a high degree of confidence in its efficacy, despite the fact that it was, though not in name, the underpinning theory of learning during most pre-Industrial periods” (p. 13). It would appear, that adopting deeper learning represents a return to a more sophisticated understanding of learning that was common prior to the reinvention of schooling for the 20th century economic and political realities.  

Deeper learning is grounded in cognitive, constructivist, social constructivist, and connectionist theories of learning. Cognitive psychology posits motivation, problem solving, and reflection are factors affecting learning. Constructivist psychology posit learning occurs through the active interpretation, integration, and meaning making of information and ideas; social constructivism extends this to include interaction with others as an essential part of learning. Connectionists posit knowledge is stored both in one’s brain and in the network of tools and people the learner can bring to a problem. Together, these present a more sophisticated version of learning than is traditionally allowed in the behavioristic models that underly the Standard Model of Education. Scholars and practitioners typically recognize different aspects of deeper learning are supported by different psychologies.  


Harris, P., & Walling, D. R. (2016). Redefining Learning: A Neurocognitive Approach. In M. J. Spector, B. B. Lockee, & M. D. Childress (Eds.), Learning, Design, and Technology (pp. 1–52). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-17727-4_63-1