51 9.4 Educational Psychology

Educational psychology focuses on how learning occurs; however, like educational perspectives and axiology, there are differing positions in educational psychology that can be traced back to ontological stances. There are four main psychology stances on human development and learning that inform education: information processing, behaviorism, constructivism/ cognitivism, and humanism. 

Information Processing 


Depiction of Information Processing. From left to right: Sensory Memory, Short-term Memory (Rehearsal), and Long-term Memory

Depiction of Information Processing. From top to bottom: Declarative Knowledge, Procedural Knowledge, Conditional Knowledge.Information processing theorists typically equate the human mind as analogous to computer processing. The mind uses hierarchical structures where a learner processes knowledge and ideas by attending, receiving, processing, storing, and retrieving knowledge from memory. All knowledge has three aspects: declarative, procedural, or conditional knowledge. Declarative knowledge is knowing this or that, e.g., penguins have feathers or trees grow by converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into oxygen (photosynthesis). Procedural knowledge is knowing how to do things or the steps/strategies involved in doing things, e.g., the steps involved in multiplying mixed numbers or the best ways to make a tuna fish sandwich. Conditional knowledge involves knowing the when and the why to apply the other two types of knowledge, e.g., readers skim newspapers to get the gist, but apply close reading to literature or difficult texts to develop deeper understandings.

Key theorists:

John Atkinson, Richard Shiffrin


Unlike the information processing stance, behaviorism is not concerned with internal thought processes because it cannot be observed. Environment and other external forces shape one’s behavior. Learning occurs when conditioned by external stimuli with reinforcement, positive or negative, from others in addition to feedback from outside objects. The teacher aids students in learning by conditioning them to achieve desirable behaviors through careful observation and applying the appropriate reinforcers for the desired behavior. Learning, then, comes through repetition and meaningful connection through reinforcement. Reinforcers take shape in different ways: grades, stickers, candy, praise, or negative reinforcers that will remove positive reinforcers.

Key theorists:

B.F. Skinner, Montrose Wolf


Constructivism or cognitivism positions students as active learners who construct their own understandings through active engagement with outside interaction with people, objects, places, and events reflecting on the experience. Learning occurs when a learner comes in conflict with what one knows or believes, which causes an imbalance and a quest to restore cognitive equilibrium. Learners organize their understandings into organized structures or schemas. When new information is presented, learners must modify the structures or schemas to accommodate and assimilate the new knowledge. Social constructivists focus on the shared, social construction of knowledge by learning a skill or concepts with more experienced learners until one can do the skill or apply the concepts independently, referred to by educators as the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978).

Key theorists:

Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky


Humanism views these as essential to being human: children are inherently good, humans have free will, humans have a moral conscience, humans can reason, and humans have aesthetic discernment. Learning and understanding are developed through sensual experience, which is gradual and organic in human development. Humanists position students to control their own learning; therefore, students are given a lot of autonomy, choice, and responsibility in the learning environment. Humanism positions students to become self-reliant, lifelong learners engaged through intrinsic motivation to learn new ideas. Recent iterations of humanism focus on the social and emotional well-being of children and the cognitive abilities of children.

Key theorists:

Carl Rogers, Harold C. Lyon Jr.


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Introduction to Education by Shannon M. Delgado and Sarah Mark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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