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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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Importance of external stimulus

Similar to the humanist model there is no external stimulus required for learning to take place. It is the learner’s own desire to better understand or to gain new insights through learning that drives development.

Methods of learning

Consideration is given to the current understanding of the subject matter. Thereafter structures may be put in place to support the learning process that will enable the learner to relate new information to their current understanding and, then, through the reorganisation and processing of this knowledge form new insights.


Student learning is not dependent on the lecturer in terms of their providing information. It is, however, reliant on the support and guidance provided throughout the process and bound by the particular context.

Pedagogical approach

The approach is student centred. Methods and processes are devised to allow the learner some level of control over how and when their learning occurs. Similar to the humanist model, emphasis is less likely to be on how much knowledge has been acquired but more on the insights gained through problem-solving and inquiry.

Learning approach

Students discover for themselves and do not expect to be provided with solutions. Learning thrives in an environment that provides opportunities for insights to be gained when addressing problems. Here the learner seeks meaning from the answers that they unearth.

Thinking process

The process is deductive and inductive. The thought processes adopted by students are dependent on the current stage of development. Students may be presented with a problem or task depending on the stage of development. The lecturer may explain how the problem should be solved or may provide opportunities to explore different ways of solving the problem or carrying out the task. Students gradually become more active in this process.

Type of learning

Learning is more likely to be individual as students may arrive at the point of insight at different stages, depending on how well they organise and reorganise information. Although, depending on cognitive abilities, opportunities for groupwork may arise.

Type of model

The type of model is processual. It is not easily evaluated as learning is concerned with cognitive development and is therefore difficult to measure.

Metaphor/s of learning

In organising and reorganising information a student is attempting to gain an understanding. Inquiry is a key feature of this model. The learner must be continually prepared to follow a process of critical inquiry until insight is gained.

Implications for Higher Education

The lecturer may adopt a mixed mode of delivery suited to the learner’s stage of development. There may be times when the learner requires more rigid structures to help them gain insights. Other instances may involve the lecturer adopting an inquisitive role to ensure multiple opportunities are explored. E-learning and distance learning can provide the essential structures and organisers to support student learning. Groups who work on projects also adopt the role of investigators or explorers where heavy instruction from the lecturer is not required.

Activity model


The activity model adopts the belief that learning is a process of constructing knowledge. Activist learning empowers learners to articulate themselves in a way that is relevant to their lives and their roles as agents of change. The nature of knowledge is constructed and based on experience.

Origin of learning goals

Learning is activity or task orientated. Goals relate to what is required so that the learner can apply this knowledge and complete the activity. It is an intentional strategy for creating knowledge that is characterised by taking action.


Motivation stems from the cognitive process of trying to complete the task. The nature of the task is relevant and therefore the perceived value internally drives learner motivation, i.e. it is intrinsic. As a task determines specific goals, extrinsic motivation is also utilised.

Learning theory

Students are no longer passive receptacles of information and knowledge in traditional classroom settings. Activity theory stems from constructivism and is based on the principle of the learner questioning their current view of knowledge and acquiring new knowledge that allows a new understanding to be formed. Cognitive development can only reach its full potential when it incorporates social interaction. This is done through an active learning process that is driven by a particular task or activity.


Major contributors to the activity model include the following.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896–1934)

Vygotsky argued that social interaction was an important component in the development of student learning. He believed that cognitive development is limited to a certain range and that full development requires social interaction. He trusted the learner’s ability to solve real-life, practical problems and suggested that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition.

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