Sometimes you just need a diagram

I’ve been reading and watching videos about learning theories with great interest.  As luck would have it, I’ve also recently been writing a book chapter about learning theories, so the information is really, really timely and helpful for me. I have to say, though, that in my own readings in this area, I’m finding the literature a confusing mess.  While I think I generally understand the theories individually, I would love to better understand how they are related to each other: how they are interconnected, how they are different, what level of theory they represent, and so forth. In short, I need a diagram!  Well, a flow chart would also work, or maybe a taxonomy.  But I haven’t yet found a good one.

In trying to sort them out for myself, I’ve come to think of three primary psychological theories, that suggest that learning is a change that happens in the mind of an individual; these theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. I also think I’m seeing a grouping of more interdisciplinary or contextual theories, which rather than looking at learning as a change that happens within an individual, the change/learning is a larger/broader change that is socially shared with others and possibly (likely?) involves technological artifacts.  I think connectivism probably falls into this camp (could be wrong on this, but seems to me at any rate), as well as some other theories that consider learning as something that is beyond a single individual, such as situated learning.  tis in my mind at least a different kind of theory than the individual/psychological ones.

But then I wonder where do others fit?  Where would instructivism be situated in a diagram, or a flow chart, or a taxonomy of learning theories?  What about andragogy?  What about humanism? They just seem to be a little bit different than some of the other theories, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on how.

I really could use that diagram.

7 thoughts on “Sometimes you just need a diagram

  1. Hi Claire — I think you’re on to something. I can’t wait to see the diagram that you create as you ponder answers to your questions. And I’m curious — what tool will you choose to create that diagram?


    • Hi Ralene,

      Actually I was kind of hoping that someone would point me to a good diagram! Best I’ve come to is the separation between the individual/psychological and social/contextual theories.

      Is a good question about the tool. I am not familiar with all of the concept mapping tools out there but I have been thinking that I might assign students to do a concept map next term. Do you know of a really good (and pref free) one?


  2. Hi Claire – another fascinating post, which I need more time to think about. A quick search on the web, reveals that quite a number of people have attempted to produce a taxonomy of learning theories and/or mindmaps – and as you say it’s a confusing mess. I think the reason for this is that each person’s interpretation/taxonomy/mindap will be unique to them.

    In the work that I am doing with a colleague on emergent learning – we have come up against the same problem. In all attempts to pin down descriptions of emergent learning, we have come up time and again against the issue of complexity, and the difficulties of describing complex situations. I wrote a blog post about this just the other day – – and I can recommend Paul Cillier’s article which I have referenced there.

    So my thinking is that in wanting to create a taxonomy of learning theories, you have set yourself a very complex task. Maybe you find the taxonomies you have come across so far unsatisfactory because they are over-simplistic. Maybe any taxonomy or map of learning theories would have to be multi-dimensional – and even if this difficult task were achieved it would be still be ‘your’ map or taxonomy, which might not be how others’ perceive it. You would inevitably, in an attempt to reduce complexity, have left something out that someone else would have left in.

    I think what I have learned from the work I have been doing on emergent learning is that it’s not the framework/map/taxonomy/flow chart that is important for me. It’s the discussion that that framework generates. So relating that to learning design, I suppose for me it’s not the design itself that is important, but the discussion, learning and in particular questions that that design generates.

    Not sure if any of this will resonate with you – but like Ralene I look forward to seeing what you come up with.


    • Hi Jenny,

      I apparently need to edit my post! I was actually hoping that someone would point me to a good diagram!

      While I do hear what you are saying about it being individual and such, I do think it could do the field some good to make some sense of the different theories, what kind of theories they are, what level of theory, how they are related to each other, etc. Seems to me that could improve the conversation to have a few good models.

      I have seen some of the ones out there and most seem to do a pretty good job of the psychological theories and even some of the social/contextual ones. Haven’t seen humanism (Maslow, Friere, etc…could prob put Knowles there), though, and I’m not sure where that might fit. Also, I’ve not really heard much before about instructivism as a learning theory, but I have started to notice folks are describing it as one, and I’m not sure where that might fit. And I would like to better understand. I too need to do some thinking!

      Thanks for another great comment. I am going to dig some more, and if I can’t turn up one that strikes me as fairly descriptive/accurate/inclusive, I’ll have to think about next steps (would I even dare try my hand at one???).


  3. Hi Claire – yes why not try your hand at producing a diagram :-) It sounds like a very interesting but probably long-term project. Just thinking off the top of my head – would Donald Clark’s blog be a good place to start –

    No need to reply – I know you have to move on to Week 22 – but I would be interested to hear if and when you do produce a diagram.


    • Hi Jenny,

      Thanks! I have not run across that one, and it looks really useful (if a bit daunting!). I like that no one is listed for instructivism…can’t figure out where that’s even come from!

      Incidentally I just posted my take on ed/learning theories for my week 22 assignment (is what I signed up for, although now I can’t for the life of me remember why! ha!). Not sure it’s showing up on the main potcert page yet, but it’s at It’s a pretty boiled down version but I hope makes at least some sense as a summary.


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