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Social Learning Theories

Abraham Maslow Biography

In his seminal work “Motivation and Personality, Abraham Maslow wrote: “The scientist who is also something of a poet, philosopher, and even a dreamer, is almost certainly an improvement on his more constricted colleagues." [6] While he was not talking about himself, it is nonetheless true that Abraham Maslow was not only the scientist known as the Father of Humanistic Psychology, [1] but he was also something of a poet, philosopher, and dreamer. A glance through the life and life’s work of this acclaimed figure reveals a man who spent his days urging his fellow human beings to thrive, and showing others how to do the same.


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Learner-centered design

Summary: Learner centered design focuses on creating software for heterogeneous groups of learners who need scaffolding as they learn while completing constructivist activities.

Originators and Key Contributors: Elliot Soloway, Mark Guzdian, Kenneth E. Hay

Keywords: constructivism, learner-centered design, learners, scaffolding, software

Learner-centered Design

Learner-centered design (LCD) theory emphasizes the importance of supporting the learners’ growth and motivational needs in designing software[1]. In addition, since learners have different learning needs and learn in different ways, the software must be designed for the specific learner-audience.

The concept of scaffolds is central to learner-centered design. In order to support learners optimally, software should be designed with scaffolds that will support the learners as they need it. Examples of scaffolds in software are hints, explanation and encouragement to help learners understand a process, and questions to help learners reflect on what they are learning[2].

Software scaffolds that support learners best are adaptive, meaning that they change according to what the learner needs in any learning moment. When a learner needs more support, the software provides an increase in feedback to help the learner grow, stay engaged, and progress in mastering a skill. When the learner is reaching mastery, the software will provide reduced scaffolds in response to the learner’s increased skill level.

In focusing on learner-centered design, four elements must be addressed in designing the software. They are:

  1. Context: The goal, purpose, and audience of the software
  2. Interface: The front end and/or aesthetics of the software that learners interact with
  3. Tasks: What the learners will do in the software
  4. Tools: What is needed in the software to support the tasks that students will do; these can include scaffolds

Designing software from a LCD perspective keeps the learner in mind and, if done well, provides an effective and meaningful learning experience[3].

For more information on learner-centered design, read The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.


  1. Soloway, E., Guzdial, M., & Hay, K. E. (1994). Learner-centered design: The challenge for HCI in the 21st century. interactions, 1(2), 36-48.
  2. Soloway, Elliot, et al. “Learning theory in practice: Case studies of learner-centered design.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. ACM, 1996.
  3. Quintana, C., Carra, A., Krajcik, J., & Soloway, E. (2001). Learner-centered design: Reflections and new directions.

Connectivism (Siemens, Downes)

Summary: Connectivism is a learning theory that explains how Internet technologies have created new opportunities for people to learn and share information across the World Wide Web and among themselves.

Originators & Proponents: George Siemens, Stephen Downes

Keywords: communication, connection, distributed cognition, distributed learning, information, Internet, knowledge sharing, links, massive open online course (MOOC), nodes, online, open educational resources (OER), social networks


Connectivism is a learning theory that explains how Internet technologies have created new opportunities for people to learn and share information across the World Wide Web and among themselves. These technologies include Web browsers, email, wikis, online discussion forums, social networks, YouTube, and any other tool which enables the users to learn and share information with other people.

A key feature of connectivism is that much learning can happen across peer networks that take place online. In connectivist learning, a teacher will guide students to information and answer key questions as needed, in order to support students learning and sharing on their own. Students are also encouraged to seek out information on their own online and express what they find. A connected community around this shared information often results.


Anchored Instruction (Bransford, Cognition & Technology Group at Vanderbilt)

Summary: Anchored Instruction involves the use of an “anchor" material or media, often a video, to create a shared experience among learners and a beginning point for further learning on a topic.

Originators & Proponents: Cognition & Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV), John D. Bransford

Keywords: anchor, case-based learning, case study, curriculum, discussion, shared experience, situated cognition, social learning, technology, video

Anchored instruction (Cognition & Technology Group at Vanderbilt, Bransford)

Anchored instruction involves the use of an “anchor" material or piece of media, often a video, to create a shared experience among learners and a beginning point for further learning on a topic[1]. The anchor video should support a few key instructional objectives. It should be:


Semiotics (de Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtin)

Summary: Semiotics is the study of how people make meaning through both linguistic and non-linguistic ways. It is a philosophical theory concerned with understanding how people use signs and symbols in meaning-making.

Originators & Proponents: Ferdinand de Saussure[1], Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin

Keywords: communication, connotation, culture, denotation, icon, index, lexicon, linguistics, logic, meaning, mode, rules, signifier, signs, sign systems, symbols


Multiliteracies (New London Group)

Summary: Multiliteracies is a pedagogical approach developed in 1994 by the New London Group that aims to make classroom teaching more inclusive of cultural, linguistic, communicative, and technological diversity. They advocate this so that students will be better prepared for a successful life in a globalized world.

Originators & Proponents: New London Group

Keywords: communication, community engagement, cultural diversity, education, expression, globalization, language, linguistic diversity, literacy, modes, multimodality, pedagogy, technology


Social Development Theory (Vygotsky)

Social Development Theory argues that social interaction precedes development; consciousness and cognition are the end product of socialization and social behavior.


  • Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Key Concepts

Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory is the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)[1][2]. Vygotsky’s work was largely unkown to the West until it was published in 1962.

Vygotsky’s theory is one of the foundations of constructivism. It asserts three major themes regarding social interaction, the more knowledgeable other, and the zone of proximal development.

Social Interaction

Social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development. In contrast to Jean Piaget’s understanding of child development (in which development necessarily precedes learning), Vygotsky felt social learning precedes development. He states: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)”.[2]

The More Knowledgeable Other (MKO)

The MKO refers to anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. The MKO is normally thought of as being a teacher, coach, or older adult, but the MKO could also be peers, a younger person, or even computers.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

The ZPD is the distance between a student’s ability to perform a task under adult guidance and/or with peer collaboration and the student’s ability solving the problem independently. According to Vygotsky, learning occurred in this zone.

Vygotsky focused on the connections between people and the sociocultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences[3]. According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. Initially children develop these tools to serve solely as social functions, ways to communicate needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills.

Applications of the Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory

Many schools have traditionally held a transmissionist or instructionist model in which a teacher or lecturer ‘transmits’ information to students. In contrast, Vygotsky’s theory promotes learning contexts in which students play an active role in learning. Roles of the teacher and student are therefore shifted, as a teacher should collaborate with his or her students in order to help facilitate meaning construction in students. Learning therefore becomes a reciprocal experience for the students and teacher.

Additional Resources and References


  • Luis C. Moll: L.S. Vygotsky and Education (Routledge Key Ideas in Education): An accessible, introductory volume that provides a good summary of Vygtoskian core concepts, including the sociocultural genesis of human thinking, a developmental approach to studying human thinking, and the power of cultural mediation in understanding and transforming educational practices. Well written and worth a look.


  1. Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press.
  2. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development.Readings on the development of children, 23(3), 34-41.
  3. Crawford, K. (1996). Vygotskian approaches in human development in the information era. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 31(1-2), 43-62.