The 6 Most Important Theories of Teaching

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The learning process has been a popular subject for theoretical analysis for decades. While some of those theories never leave the abstract realm, many of them are put into practice in classrooms on a daily basis. Teachers synthesize multiple theories, some of them decades-old, in order to improve their students' learning outcomes. The following theories of teaching represent some of the most popular and well-known in the field of education.

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Multiple Intelligences

The theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Gardner, posits that humans can possess eight different types of intelligence: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. These eight types of intelligence represent the varied ways individuals process information. 

The theory of multiple intelligence transformed the world of learning and pedagogy. Today, many teachers employ curriculums that have been developed around eight types of intelligence. Lessons are designed to include techniques that align with each individual student's learning style.

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Bloom's Taxonomy

Developed in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical model of learning objectives. The model organizes individual educational tasks, such as comparing concepts and defining words, into six distinct educational categories: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The six categories are organized in order of complexity.

Bloom's Taxonomy gives educators a common language to communicate about learning and helps teachers establish clear learning goals for students. However, some critics contend that the taxonomy imposes an artificial sequence on learning and overlooks some crucial classroom concepts, such as behavior management. 

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Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and Scaffolding

Lev Vygotsky developed a number of important pedagogical theories, but two of his most important classroom concepts are the Zone of Proximal Development and scaffolding.

According to Vygotsky, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the conceptual gap between what a student is and is not able to accomplish independently. Vygotsky suggested that the best way for teachers to support their students is by identifying the Zone of Proximal Development and working with them to accomplish tasks just beyond it. For example, a teacher might choose a challenging short story, just outside of what would be easily digestible for the students, for an in-class reading assignment. The teacher would then provide support and encouragement for the students to hone their reading comprehension skills throughout the lesson.

The second theory, scaffolding, is the act of adjusting the level of support provided in order to best meet each child's abilities. For example, when teaching a new math concept, a teacher would first walk the student through each step to complete the task. As the student begins to gain an understanding of the concept, the teacher would gradually reduce the support, moving away from step-by-step direction in favor of nudges and reminders until the student could complete the task entirely on her own.

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Schema and Constructivism

Jean Piaget's schema theory suggests new knowledge with students' existing knowledge, the students will gain a deeper understanding of the new topic. This theory invites teachers to consider what their students already know before starting a lesson. This theory plays out in many classrooms every day when teachers begin lessons by asking their students what they already know about a particular concept. 

Piaget's theory of constructivism, which states that individuals construct meaning through action and experience, plays a major role in schools today. A constructivist classroom is one in which students learn by doing, rather than by passively absorbing knowledge. Constructivism plays out in many early childhood education programs, where children spend their days engaged in hands-on activities.

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Behaviorism, a set of theories laid out by B.F. Skinner, suggests that all behavior is a response to an external stimulus. In the classroom, behaviorism is the theory that students' learning and behavior will improve in response to positive reinforcement like rewards, praise, and bonuses. The behaviorist theory also asserts that negative reinforcement — in other words, punishment — will cause a child to stop undesired behavior. According to Skinner, these repeated reinforcement techniques can shape behavior and produce improves learning outcomes.

The theory of behaviorism is frequently criticized for failing to consider students' internal mental states as well as for sometimes creating the appearance of bribery or coercion.  

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Spiral Curriculum

In the theory of the spiral curriculum, Jerome Bruner contends that children are capable of comprehending surprisingly challenging topics and issues, provided that they are presented in an age-appropriate manner. Bruner suggests that teachers revisit topics annually (hence the spiral image), adding complexity and nuance every year. Achieving a spiral curriculum requires an institutional approach to education, in which the teachers at a school coordinate their curriculums and set long-term, multi-year learning goals for their students. 

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Jagodowski, Stacy. "The 6 Most Important Theories of Teaching." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Jagodowski, Stacy. (2020, August 27). The 6 Most Important Theories of Teaching. Retrieved from Jagodowski, Stacy. "The 6 Most Important Theories of Teaching." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).