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Learning Theories & Pedagogies

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

What is a Learning Theory?

"In short, learning theories are abstract frameworks that describe how knowledge is received and processed during the learning experience"

What is a Pedagogy?

"The method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept."

Learning is the big picture...

I find it helpful to think of the learning theories, and pedagogical approaches as puzzle pieces each focusing on a different layer or aspect of the larger picture of learning often working simultaneously. Sometimes elements from one may be more prevalent than another, however, if we only observe from one perspective, we might miss something important.

Pedagogical Approaches are organized into two main categories; Learner-Centered and Instructor Centered:

"Student-centered mindsets view the learner as primary and unique agents of learning, engagement, and connection, as opposed to teacher-centered mindsets which tend to view learners as passive and uniform vessels."

Let's Compare the Instructional Design of These Two Categories



Instructor Role

  • ​Arbiter of Right and Wrong,

  • Dominates Learning Environment,

  • Transmission Model (Top-Down),

  • Compliance-Seeking

  • Controls Student Behavior Through Prompting, Interrupting, Extrinsic Motivators etc.,

  • Dictates The Process By Which Learning Should Occur

  • Imposes Meaning,

  • Wields and Leverages Power

  • Facilitates/ Mediates,/ Nurtures/ Guides,

  • Prepares & Customizes Learning Environment,

  • Constructs Environment to Purposefully Engage Various Thought Processes

  • Makes Space for Multiple Perspectives

  • Respects & Acknowledges Students’ Existing Knowledge, Experience & Individual Needs,

  • Conscious of and Sparingly Wields/Leverages Power

  • Recruits,

  • Able to Deliver Information in a Variety of Ways,

  • Cultivates inquiry & Curiosity,

Learner Role

  • Passive Participant

  • Recipient of Knowledge

​Active Participant,

  • Has Access to Choices,

  • Dictates The Process by Which Learning Should Occur

  • Can Communicate Needs and Preferences,

  • Has Control Over Learning Environment,

  • Agency

  • Self-Directed,

  • Self-Paced,

  • Seeks to Understand New Information in Relation to Cataloged Information in Memory.

  • Develops Independence,

  • Develops Self-Regulation

Instructional Design Elements

*Not an exhaustive list...

  • ​Instructor Led

  • One-Way Communication

  • Transactional

  • Procedural/Sequential

  • Fixed/Rigid

  • Repetitive (Drills, Loops, etc.)

  • Observable Behavior

  • Assigned Associations

  • Extrinsic Motivation

  • Imposed Consequences

  • Compartmentalized Knowledge

  • Discrete Skills

  • ​Learner Led

  • Two-Way Communication

  • Collaborative/Negotiation

  • Prepared Environment

  • Flexible

  • Multiple Perspectives

  • Scaffolding

  • Balance of Power

  • Exploration/Discovery

  • Embedded Learning

  • Cognitive Structuring

  • Intrinsic Motivation

  • Process-Based Evaluation

  • Schematic Knowledge

  • Adaptation/Accommodation


Learning Theories:



Learning occurs as a result of the production of expected observable behavior (outputs) through repetitive exposure to external stimuli and responses (inputs).

Key Contributors: Skinner, Pavlov,

Watson, Guthrie



Learning occurs as a result of students actively participating in the construction of their own knowledge and building off of existing knowledge and experiences.

Key Contributors: Vygotsky, Piaget, Brunner, Dewey



Learning is a change in mental representations and associations through experience. Cognitive processes matter as much, if not more than observable behavior.

Key Contributors: Piaget, Shell, Winna



A framework of adult learning, in which it is recognized that the student possesses extensive knowledge and is seeking information immediately applicable or relevant to their situation.

Key Contributors: Knowles



Learning is best facilitated when the physical, emotional, mental, and social needs of the individual are fulfilled.

Key Contributors: Maslow

There is a pedagogical evolution occurring in the training industry. Where we go next is up to us...

The animal training industry is decades behind human education as these learning theories have not only existed for a long time, but are at the forefront of teaching in other realms. Even R+ / force-free training strategies tend to be overwhelmingly teacher-centered. How can we adapt our instructional design to be more learner-centered? Although this information is not new, adapting our strategies in the animal training industry to catch up is, and I believe that using human education as a model can help to propel the animal training industry into the future.

What do you think?


Sources Referenced:

Reid, A. J. (n.d.). Learning theory overview. Instructional Design Central. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from

Teacher-centered vs. student-centered course design. Stanford Teaching Commons. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2023, from

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