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Theories of learning and curriculum design
Key positionalities and their relationships

Author - Tony Cunningham, Julie Gannon, Mary Kavanagh, John Greene, Louise Reddy, Laurence Whitson

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Positionality and theories of learning


The purpose of this paper is to augment the learning theory schema presented in Reece and Walker (2000: 118–121). Five broad models of learning are presented in the attached chart detailing learning theories that influence current education and learning practice. The matrix may be used as a framework providing an overview of each theory’s concepts and processes of learning. Each model posits assumptions of how knowledge is understood and created. All of the models are briefly discussed under the same headings used in the matrix as a means of providing further clarification on the differences and similarities between each of the models.
            An explanation of terms provides a contextual definition of the headings used in the schema to examine each model (see left hand column of chart).

Behaviourist model


Behaviourist theory asserts that knowledge is finite. Learning is said to be overt, observable and measurable using empirical methods.This contributes to the belief that learning is observable through changes in behaviour of the learner.

Origin of learning goals

Goals are prescribed. Specific stimuli are introduced within a controlled environment to trigger appropriate learning to achieve specific goals. The lecturer controls stimuli introduced into the learning environment and dictates goals that will be achieved in response to these stimuli.


Learning is influenced by external factors, as opposed to internal thought processes of intrinsic motivation. Learning is rewarded to encourage desirable results. Extrinsic motivation drives students to do things for tangible rewards or pressures. Undesirable behaviour is ignored or punished to avoid reoccurrence. It is the prospect of receiving positive reward that drives learning, such as passing an exam i.e. external motivation.

Learning theory

There is a focus on physical behaviour that can be observed, controlled and measured. Thought processes fall outside the remit of the controlled environment and are therefore of little or no concern. Learning occurs where specific stimuli are introduced to the learner causing certain responses to occur which result in a change in behaviour. Learning usually takes place in incremental steps and can be increased through repetition and reinforcement. A teacher (or organisation) determines what objectives the learner should achieve. These objectives are said to be met when the learner responds in a certain way, based on controlled stimuli.


Major contributors to behaviourist theory include the following.

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