History of Learning and Learning Theories: Looking back to Move Forward

Yesterday was a particularly sad day for Brazil. It was our biggest death toll in 24 hours since the beginning of the pandemic: 1726 lives were lost due to COVID-19. Many families won’t see their loved ones anymore, many friends won’t be able to hug each other when this is over. Many dreams were shattered by this chaotic period we’re going through.

This all got me thinking. It made me reflect on why we seem to disregard (or refuse to learn from) the past when trying to move forward. Why are we trapped in a bubble of our own collective ignorance and keep making the same mistakes? Psychology and Neuroscience might offer relevant insights about this puzzle but we can discuss this some other day.

For this blog post, let us focus on how the concept of learning and education evolved throughout different ages. What can this evolution teach us about what we’re going through today and how can that impact what we value in formal education?

Humans have been fascinated with learning and how it occurs for as long as the earliest civilizations were formed. It was assumed by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greek that intelligence, senses, and emotions were functions of the heart (Wickens, 2015). However, around the 5th century BC, a philosopher and physician by the name of Alcmaeon of Croton, had already suggested that the brain was the seat of the mind, that it controlled intelligence, as well as the senses (Wickens, 2015)

Other Ancient Greek philosophers who lived a century or so later such as Socrates and his disciples, particularly Plato, believed that knowledge was innate and it could be accessed, or brought out, through reflection (Cordasco, 1976).  Maieutics, commonly known as the Socratic Method, posits that the truth emerges through dialogue, or a series of questions, where the presentation of a claim (thesis) is challenged by another claim (antithesis) successively in an attempt to join the opposing views into a more refined truth (synthesis) or discard them altogether (refutation) only to start this process of inquiry again. It can be argued that Socrates gave rise to the early developments of critical pedagogy, although his methods would not become part of educational debates and policy until quite recently (Benson, 2000; Schunk, 2012)

Nevertheless, at the time of Socrates, in other parts of the Western world, such as Sparta and the Roman Empire, and in Asia, particularly China and India, the notion of learning through discipline and obedience was widespread. This notion of perfection through practice, and often penitence, has been replicated by many countries from the Middle Ages to more contemporary times. It was believed that physically punishing students was an effective way to make them learn and instil obedience and respect in them (Cordasco, 1976). For instance, it was only in the mid-1980s that corporal punishments at schools were forbidden in the United Kingdom (Ghandhi, 1984).

It is worth stressing that throughout most of education history, only a few, members of an elite, noblemen and royalty, were allowed to receive and could afford some sort of formal education (Schunk, 2012). These children would most likely have a private tutor, normally a monk, who taught them reading and writing, maths, rhetoric, arts, philosophy, astrology and history. The children of peasants, and serfs, during medieval times, were conditioned by their social status to learn how to farm and help their parents with the crops, and perhaps become an apprentice under the tutelage of a master who taught them a profession. The church was directly involved with formal education in medieval Europe and its main concern was to teach obedience so that the children would grow into adults who conformed to their position in society (Cordasco, 1976; Schunk, 2012).

In the late 17th century until the late 18th century, when the Enlightenment brought the so-called Age of Reason to Europe and America, which promoted the scientific revolution and a break from religious dogma, philosophers such as the Englishman John Locke and the French Jean Jacques Rousseau discussed what education should be like and how children should be educated (Gianoutsos, 2006; Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

Only with the establishment of modern psychology, in the late-1800s, that the notion of joining brain and mind science applied in education started to become a trend. Psychologists such as Thorndike, Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky, Wallon, Pavlov, and Skinner wanted to understand features of children’s learning process through the observation of or experimentation with children’s development and behaviours (and through animal tests), which laid the foundation for one of the bases of the MBE science, that is, mind research. A newly born concern of how children develop and learn took its place in academia (Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

In retrospect, we can distinguish some very influential learning theories that have their origins in psychology. I provide five of them, their descriptions and main authors below.

Learning theories

PsychodynamicsChildhood experiences shape our personalities and remain in the unconscious, which influences our learningFreud (1915); Adler (1927); Erikson (1950); Jung (1964)
BehaviourismExternal factors, conditioning, learning as observable behaviourThorndike (1905); Watson (1930); Pavlov (1955); Skinner (1978)
CognitivismInternal processing, incremental stages, prior knowledgePiaget (1932, 1958) Piaget & Cook (1952); Chomsky (1957)
ConstructivismHumans create meaning, not acquire it. We construct knowledge through our experiences. Socio-constructivism: we learn through interactions with othersPiaget (1945, 1957); Montessori (1936; 1949); Vygotsky (1978)
HumanismHolistic learning, individual as a subject, learning is naturalMaslow (1943, 1968); Rogers (1946, 1959)
Source: authors mentioned in table

I do not intend to go over these theories here as I have already written about them in more detail for the New Routes Magazine and even delivered a webinar for BRAZ-TESOL on the topic:

However, I do want to ask a few reflective questions in the light of two (possibly three) of the theories mentioned above. Consider the following:

Many of Freud’s propositions are now considered pseudoscience but he was certainly right about childhood experiences influencing our adult lives. How damaged will kids from this generation be if we don’t reflect on how to provide safe learning environments that actually help them and do not put their lives (and that of their loved ones) in danger?

I wrote about the need for reflection on the school ecosystem here.

If we look at what authors such as Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori proposed (we could even talk about Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education), we might realize that education means preparation for life (to quote John Dewey) not academia only and that current formal education, in general, seems to have settled at promoting a fixed curriculum that keeps great distance from students’ real life. Contact with nature, arts, emotions (mental health and self-regulation), essential life skills, empathy and compassion have never been so important, nevertheless, they seem so scarce.

Think about when these theories/pedagogies took shape and became popular. After a period of incredible hardship (Great World War and the Spanish Flu). It’s as if they were created as a necessity to rethink the status quo and provide innovative solutions to an old educational system. Why haven’t we learned much from them 100 years after? Why do we insist on an outdated teacher-centered model that focuses on standardized test results and the job market? Is it something we can change or is the system immutable?

Finally, I’d like to talk about humanism. If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’ll notice that we need food, shelter, safety, love, self-esteem and many other things that are directly connected to us as human beings, holistically, not simply thinking/reasoning brains.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Source: Simple Psychology website

That tells us something about what to prioritize in education and in society as a whole. However, can we say we have at least tried to use these lessons from the past to reflect on the needs of today and break the current educational paradigm? Can we honestly say that we drank from the source of wisdom left to us by the collective endeavor of human entrepreneurship and ingenuity in order to face this challenge in the best way we could with the least damage possible?

I know. Not everything is up to us. I wish I could say that if we really wanted to, we’d be able to make change. Proper change. The powers that be are set and we sometimes find ourselves in a straightjacket. Nonetheless, what are the lessons we can learn from how learning has evolved and how schooling is set up nowadays? I wrote about a few lessons here that might shed some light on this debate.

I suppose my takeaway is that even though formal education has been reaching more and more people, it is still quite old-fashioned, based on hierarchy/discipline and behaviorism, college/academia-oriented, and that families have delegated many of their parenting responsibilities to schools as they’re always busy. The wheel must keep turning no matter what. In that process, there’s no time to really stop and rethink the things we’re doing.

If we keep moving and don’t stop to learn from the past, someone once said, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes. I wish I could say there’s hope. I wish I could say that we’ll get out of this terrible pandemic as soon as possible and that we’ll change education to suit the needs of our kids as future citizens that are connected to one another, to nature, people who have compassion and can work collaboratively to achieve solutions to benefit the world. However, based on what I’m witnessing, I dare say that History will keep on repeating itself and old mistakes will be made and replicated again an again.

I hope I’m wrong and I hope we learn something from the history of learning. What do you think?


Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg

Benson, H. (2000) Socratic Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cordasco, F. (1976). A brief history of education: a handbook of information on Greek, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and modern educational practice (No. 67). Rowman & Littlefield.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.

Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

Ghandhi, S. (1984). Spare the rod: Corporal punishment in schools and the European Convention on Human Rights. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 488-494.

Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Montessori, M. (1936). The secret of childhood. B. B. Carter (Ed.). Calcutta: Orient Longmans.

Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind (Vol. 1). Lulu. com.

Pavlov, I. P. (1955). Selected works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1945). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. AMC, 10, 12.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1,  415-422.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories an educational perspective sixth edition. Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on Behaviorism and Society. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Simon and Schuster

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Wickens, Andrew P. (2015) A History of the Brain: From Stone Age Surgery to Modern Neuroscience. London: Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-84872-365-8

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