Educational Theorists

SCED 305

Graphic Overview of Relevant Theorists by Cambria Conley


Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland in 1896. He applied biological principles and methods to the study of human development.

Piaget's Stages of Development


  1. Sensorimotor: (birth to 2 years) Formation of concept of "object permanence" and gradual progression from reflexive behavior to goal-directed behavior.
  2. Preoperational: (2 to 7 years) Development of the ability to use symbols to represent objects in the world. Thinking remains egocentric and centered.
  3. Concrete Operational: (7 to 11 years) Improvement in ability to think logically. New abilities include the use of operations that are reversible. Thinking is decentered, and problem solving is less restricted by egocentrism. Abstract thinking is not possible.
  4. Formal Operational: (11 years to adulthood) Abstract and purely symbolic thinking is possible. Problems can be solved through the use of systematic experimentation.
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Critiques on Jean Piaget

  • Piaget held that developmental stages were largely fixed and that such concepts as conversation could not be taught. Research found that:

Young children can succeed on simpler forms of Piaget's tasks before they reach the stage at which that task is usually achieved. Children are more competent than Piaget originally thought.

  • In critique to the heart of Piaget's "stage" theory, researchers doubt that there are broad stages of development affecting all types of cognitive tasks. Experience matters!

*Neo-Piagetian theories are modifications of Piaget's theory that attempt to overcome its limitations and address problems that critics have identified

  • Neo-Piagetians have demonstrated that children's abilities to operate at a particular stage depend a great deal on the specific tasks involved; that training and experience, including social interactions, can accelerate children's development; and that culture has an important impact on development.

Jean Piaget's Impact on Education

Piaget's theories focused attention on the idea of developmentally appropriate education -- meaning an education with environments, curriculum, materials, and instruction suitable for students in terms of their physical and cognitive abilities and their social and emotional needs. These teaching implications include:

  1. A focus on the process of children's thinking, not only its products.
  2. Recognition of the crucial role of children's self-initiated, active involvement in learning activities.
  3. A de-emphasis on practices aimed at making children adult-like in their thinking.
  4. Acceptance of individual differences in developmental progress.
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Lev Semionovich Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who died in 1934. Vygotsky was a contemporary of Jean Piaget, with his theory becoming a powerful force in developmental psychology.

The Development of Self-Regulation

  1. Private Speech: Children incorporate the speech of others and then use that speech to help themselves solve problems. This is easy to see in young children, who frequently talk to themselves, especially when faced with difficult tasks.
  2. The Zone of Proximal Development: Tasks within the zone of proximal development are those that a child cannot yet accomplish alone but could accomplish with the assistance of more competent peers or adults. (The Zone of Proximal Development describes tasks that a child has not yet learned but is capable of learning at a given time, also known as a "Teachable Moment")
  3. Mediation: Older children and adults help learners by explaining, modeling, or breaking down complex skills, knowledge, or concepts. These complex skills, such as reasoning and problem solving, are developed through mediation with adults and higher-performing peers.
  4. Scaffolding: The assistance provided by more competent peers or adults. Typically, this means providing a child with a great deal of support during the early stages of learning and then diminishing support and having the child take on increasing responsibility as soon as he/she is able.
  5. Cooperative Learning: Children work together to help one another learn. Because peers are usually operating within each other's zones of proximal development, they often provide models for each other of slightly more advanced thinking.

Critiques on Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky receives very little criticism on his educational theory.

  • One point of criticism is that Lev Vygotsky assumes that his theory is culturally universal. Scaffolding for example, may not be equally useful in every culture setting and for every learning type.

Lev Vygotsky's Impact on Education

The concept of a zone of proximal development implies that only instruction and activities that fall within this zone can be learned. Teaching content that is too easy or too difficult does not add to learning. Scaffolding and Cooperative learning activities would be highly beneficial for teachers to implement in their classrooms. This can be organized in classroom activities such as:

  • Instruction can be planned to provide practice within the zone of proximal development for individual children or for groups of children. For example, hints and prompts that helped children during a pre-assessment could form the basis of instructional activities.

  • Scaffolding provides hints and prompts at different levels. In scaffolding, the adult does not simplify the task, but the role of the learner is simplified "through the graduated intervention of the teacher"

  • Cooperative learning activities can be planned with groups of children at different levels who can help each other learn.

Erik Erikson

Trained by Sigmund Freud as a psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson hypothesized that people pass through eight psychosocial stages in their lifetimes. At each stage, there are crises or critical issues to be resolved.

Erikson's Stages of Personal and Social Development

Stage 1: Trust versus Mistrust (Birth to 18 Months)

Stage 2: Autonomy versus Doubt (18 Months to 3 years)

Stage 3: Initiative versus Guilt (3 years to 6 years)

Stage 4: Industry versus Inferiority (6 to 12 years)

Stage 5: Identity versus Role Confusion (12 to 18 years)

Stage 6: Intimacy versus Isolation (Young Adulthood)

Stage 7: Generativity versus Self-Absorption (Middle Adulthood)

Stage 8: Integrity versus Despair (Late Adulthood)

Critiques on Erik Erikson

  • Not all people experience Erikson's crises to the same degree or at the same time. The age ranges stated may represent the best times for a crisis to be resolved, but they are not the only possible times.

  • In the first three stageshe first three stages of interactions are primarily interactions with family and other family members. However, the stages of personal and social development are played out in constant interactions with others and with society as a whole.

  • Erikson's theory does not explain how or why individuals progress from one stage to another. It is also difficult to confirm this theory through research.

Erik Erikson's Impact on Education

In Erikson's Stages of Personal and Social Development, one stage must be mastered before on can move to the next one. If this is not achieved then people can become fixated in the stage in which they are stuck. It is important for educators to understand this because it can help them not only when creating age, and developmentally appropriate curriculum material, but it can also help with classroom behavior management and lesson planning skills.
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Lawrence Kohlberg

Kohlberg (1963, 1969) studied how children (and adults) reason about rules and govern their behavior in certain situations. Kohlberg did not study children's game playing, but rather probed for their responses to a series of structured situations or moral dilemmas.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Reasoning

I. Preconventional Level:

  • Rules are set down by others
  • Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation. Physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness
  • Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation. What is right is whatever satisfies one's own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Elements of fairness and reciprocity are present, but they are mostly interpreted in a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" fashion.

II. Conventional Level:

  • Individual adopts rules and will sometimes subordinate own needs to those of the group. Expectations of family, group, or nation seen as valuable in own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences.
  • Stage 3: "Good Boy-Good Girl" Orientation. Good behavior is whatever pleases or helps others and is approved of by them. One earns approval by being "nice".
  • Stage 4: "Law and Order" Orientation. Right is doing one's duty, showing respect for authority, and maintain the given social order for its own sake.

III. Postconventional Level:

  • People define own values in terms of ethical principles they have chosen to follow.
  • Stage 5: Social Contact Orientation. What is right is defined in terms of general individual rights and in terms of standards that have been agreed on by the whole society. In contrast to Stage 4, laws are not
    frozen"-- they can be changed for the good of society.
  • Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation. What is right is defined by decision of conscience according to self-chosen ethical principles. These principles are abstract and ethical (such as the Golden Rule), not specific moral prescriptions (such as the Ten Commandments).

Critiques on Lawrence Kohlberg

  • Kohlberg's research focused mainly on boys, some research on girls' moral reasoning finds patterns that are somewhat different from those originally proposed.

  • Young children can often reason about moral situations in more sophisticated ways than a stage theory would suggest.

  • This theory focuses on moral reasoning rather than with actual behavior. Also, the context of moral dilemmas matters though it is not mentioned.

Lawrence Kohlberg's Impact on Education

Teachers can help students progress in moral reasoning by weaving discussions of justice and moral issues into lessons, particularly in response to events that occur in the classroom or in the broader society.

Albert Bandura

Social Learning Theory, developed by Albert Bandura, accepts most of the principles of behavioral theories but focuses to a much greater degree on the effects of cues on behavior and on internal mental processes, emphasizing the effects of though on action and action on thought.

Bandura's Analysis of Observational Learning

1. Attentional Phase: Paying attention to a model. In general, students pay attention to role models who are attractive, successful, interesting, and popular.

2. Retention Phase: Once teachers have students' attention, it is time to model the behavior they want students to imitate and then give students a chance to practice or rehearse.

3. Reproduction Phase: During the reproduction phase, students try to match their behavior to the model's. In the classroom the assessment of student learning takes place during this phase.

4. Motivational Phase: The final stage in the observational learning process is motivation. Students will imitate a model because they believe that doing so will increase their own chance to be reinforced.

Critiques on Albert Bandura

  • Behavioral learning theories are limited in scope.

  • Behavioral learning theorists focus almost exclusively on observable behavior which means less visible learning processes, such as concept formation, learning from text, problem solving, and critical thinking.

Bandura's Impact on Education

Classroom teachers use the principle of vicarious learning all the time.
  • For example: When one student is misbehaving, teachers often single out others who are working well and reinforce them for doing a good job. The misbehaving student sees that working is reinforced and gets back to work.

Observational Learning provides helpful tips for classroom management and tips on becoming an Intentional Teacher.
  • Intentional teachers are aware of principles of behavioral and social learning and use them flexibly to help students become productive and capable learners.

Donald Meichenbaum

Meichenbaum developed a strategy in which students are taught to monitor and regulate their own behavior. Self-regulated learning strategies of this kind are referred to as cognitive behavior modification.

Meichenbaum's Model of Self-Regulated Learning

The steps involved in self-instruction are described as follows:
1. An adult model performs a task while talking to self out loud (cognitive modeling).
2. The child performs the same task under the direction of the model's instructions (overt, external guidance).
3. The child performs the task while instructing self aloud (overt self-guidance).
4. The child whispers the instructions to self as he or she goes through the task (faded, overt self-guidance).
5. The child performs the task while guiding his or her performance via private speech (covert self-instruction).

Critiques on Donald Meichenbaum

The Critiques on Donald Michenbaum are the same as the critiques listed above for Albert Bandura:

  • "Behavioral learning theories are limited in scope."

  • "Behavioral learning theorists focus almost exclusively on observable behavior which means less visible learning processes, such as concept formation, learning from text, problem solving, and critical thinking. "

Meichenbaum's Influence on Education

  • Self-regulated learning strategies not only have been found to improve performance on the task students were taught but also have generalized to other tasks.

  • Self-regulation strategies such as as self-monitoring checklists and task lists increased the amount of homework and the quality of work that students completed by empowering students and making them feel like they are making progress toward their larger goal over time, rather than all at once.


Slavin, Robert E. Educational Psychology. 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, 2015. Print.

  1. Piaget: pages 30-38
  2. Vygotsky: pages 38-41
  3. Erikson: pages 49-51
  4. Kohlberg: pages 51-55
  5. Bandura: pages 114-115
  6. Meichenbaum: pages 116-117