Other Influential Theories

From: Child Development 101 for the Developers of Interactive Media
First edition, 1996. Revised January 6, 2006 by Ellen Wolock, Ed.D, Ann Orr, Ed.D. and Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D.
© 2006 Active Learning Associates. All rights reserved.

Here's a crash course in influential learning theory that can help in the design of a children's interactive media product.

This theory asserts that behavior can be explained entirely in terms of observable responses to environmental stimuli. Influenced by the conditioned-reflex experiments of Pavlov, behaviorism was introduced in 1913 by J.B. Watson, who, denying both the value of introspection and the concept of consciousness, emphasized stimulus-response laboratory techniques. B.F. Skinner concerned himself exclusively with the relationship of observable responses to stimuli and rewards, and one result was the concept of mastery learning, which was applied in the 1950’s as “teaching machines”. Edward Thorndike was another important proponent of behaviorism; his work looked at the role of rewards and consequences and the technique of breaking tasks into small parts to be learned. Software that is very linear and scripted or that relies heavily upon external rewards draws from the behaviorist perspective.
Links: B.F. Skinner Foundation
Skinner's Wikipedia entry


This school of psychology asserts that children actively construct their own knowledge from prior experiences — a process of fitting together new experiences with old to create a new reality. The theories of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) have been used to support constructivist curricula which include the open classroom movement, whole language, and others. The idea that the child is an active, not passive, learner is key to this theory. Software that is child-led using open-ended components or virtual manipulatives draws from the constructivist theory. Piaget’s theories can be divided into two parts: his description of a set of discreet stages through which children proceed, and his explanation of a set of processes that help move a child from one stage to the next. A basic understanding of Piaget’s theories can help the software designer create more developmentally appropriate software. Note that students of educational psychology have successful refuted some of Piagetian theory. However, the big ideas are valuable and commonly used in the design of educational activities. How do children move from one stage to the next? Piaget argued that children “build” knowledge via a cycle of repeated and expanded interactions with their environment. Piaget described this process as having two mechanisms. One, he referred to as assimilation. When encountering something new in our environment (which is the prerequisite to learning), humans first try to incorporate that new thing into our existing mental framework. Accommodation is the complement to assimilation. Accommodation occurs when we have to adjust our existing mental framework in order to make room for that new “thing”. Piaget said that these two processes are occurring all the time, back and forth as we experience (learn) new things in our environment. When children encounter something new, they are slightly off balance, experiencing what Piaget called disequilibration. The child naturally seeks equilibration, or a balance between interacting factors inside and outside the child. Real world examples are easy to find. Learning a difficult sport, such as golf (trying to sink a putt, or hit a drive down a fairway), water skiing or snow boarding all have definable moments of assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. Software developers can use the tenets of Piagetian theory when they design new activities and programs. How? By gently nudging the child from equilibration to disequilibration to equilibration again.
Links: Jean Piaget Society

Social Learning Theory

The work of Albert Bandura(b. 1925) gave rise to the social learning theory. Bandura emphasized the social aspects of learning, for instance, the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes and reactions of others. In other words, Bandura claims that much of what we learn is attained by watching other people. Bandura sees learning as a continual, reciprocal interaction between cognition, behavior and environmental influences. The learner’s attention, memory and motivation are seen as key determinants of learning. Software that models desired responses or that provides children with opportunities to see other kids learning and doing can be said to draw from social learning theory.

Social Constructivism

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and philosopher in the 1930's, is most often associated with the social constructivist theory. He emphasized the influences of cultural and social contexts in learning and supported a discovery model of learning. Vygotsky believed that learning and development is a social and collaborative activity that cannot be "taught" to anyone. It is up to the student to construct his or her own understanding in his or her own mind, while the teacher acts as a facilitator. Vygotsky maintained that learning should take place in meaningful cultural contexts. Simulation programs like SimCity are perfect examples of social constructivism, as are online games which facilitate the communication between two or more players. Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development” is a useful idea for software developers. This “zone” has been defined as the distance between a child’s independent problem solving and his capabilities of problem solving while under adult guidance or the guidance of more capable peers. The “zone” is where you want to be when teaching a child— just slightly beyond what he can already do by himself. The same goes for software activities, you want them to be challenging, but not overwhelming, and you want to give the child enough support while doing the task that he succeeds at learning something new. Programs that track a child’s past performance and automatically offer slightly more challenging activities are using the concept of “zone of proximal development”.
Links: Wikipedia entry on Vygotsy
Wikipedia entry on Social Constructivism

Information Processing Theory
Based on the work of George Miller and others, the Information Processing theory of learning maintains that children are actively processing, storing and retrieving information (much like a computer) and that teaching involves helping learners to develop information processing skills and apply them systematically to mastering the curriculum. Two major principles of this theory are that short term memory (or attention span) is limited to seven chunks of information and that processing information in sequential steps is a fundamental cognitive process. CAI (computer assisted instruction) software uses these principles. Tasks are broken into sequential steps, connections between new and old information are highlighted, retention strategies are suggested and there is ample opportunity for repetition and review of information. Developers of software designed to teach memorization of facts, reading, etc. should explore this theory further as its concepts can be easily integrated into learning games and activities.

Bloom’s Taxonomy
In 1956, a group of educational psychologists led by Benjamin Bloom found that over 95% of the test questions students encounter require them to think only at the lowest possible level...the recall of information. Bloom identified six levels within the cognitive domain, from the simple recall or recognition of facts, at the lowest level, through increasingly more complex and abstract mental levels, to the highest order which is classified as evaluation.
1. Knowledge: define, list, match, order, name, repeat, memorize, recall
2. Comprehension: describe, sort, classify, report, review, identify, review, translate
3. Application: demonstrate, illustrate, solve, employ, use
4. Analysis: categorize, appraise, calculate, compare, contrast, distinguish, examine, question, test
5. Synthesis: compare, formulate, manage, organize, plan, prepare, propose, set up
6. Evaluation: assess, defend,estimate, judge, predict, support, value, test

Software has much to contribute to “higher order” thinking, through simulations such as Sim City or Oregon Trail, where children must continually evaluate and synthesize information related to a long term task. Other activities such as programming in HTML or creating with a database or spreadsheet are also examples of these skills.

Multiple Intelligence Theory
Howard Gardner's MI theory has become very popular, since the publishing of his book "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences" in 1983. Originally, he mapped out seven intelligences. The last two (Naturalistic and Existential) were added later. It is fun to associate famous people and/or careers with each.
LINGUISTIC (poet, TV news person, Barack Obama, William Shakespeare)
LOGICAL-MATHEMATICAL (engineer, math teacher, accountant)
MUSICAL (Mozart, Elton John)
SPATIAL (Pilot, architect...)
BODILY-KINESTHETIC (professional athlete, the Wii)
INTRAPERSONAL (Oprah, blogging)
INTERPERSONAL (social games, blogging
NATURALISTIC-- The ability to recognized, categorize and related to the natural world
EXTISTENTIAL -- The ability to related to the human condition and engage in transcendental concerns.

Intermittent Reinforcement— a type of reinforcement schedule in which the praise or reward is given only once in a while (like a slot machine). Of all the reinforcers, this one is the most powerful when used in software.

Minimum User Competency— the lowest level (entry level) skill a child must possess in order to be successful with an activity. A menu that requires reading raises the MUC, for example.

Responsivity— one of the variables considered to be most related to engagement. An example of responsivity in software is an immediate response to a mouse click or key stroke.

Zone of Proximal Development— or “ZPD” is an especially useful idea for software developers. This “zone” has been defined as the distance between a child’s independent problem solving and his capabilities of problem solving while under adult guidance or the guidance of more capable peers. The “zone” is where you want to be when teaching a child— just slightly beyond what he can already do by himself. A “smart” character that suggests a new activity based on previous performance is one example.

* Adapted from: Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. New York ; Toronto: Longmans, Green.