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Four Learning Theories

Child development theories introduced in the twentieth century are now seen as pillars of modern psychology and education. The major frameworks are built on each other as theorists tried to address the limitations of previously created paradigms (Dastpak et al., 2017). Researchers also employed different approaches to explain central notions and phenomena related to child development. This paper includes a brief comparison of such theories as behaviorism, nativism, Piaget’s, and Vygotsky’s models.

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Behaviorism is one of the first learning theories that paved the way for other models and approaches. In the 1910s, John B. Watson introduced his concepts regarding psychology and associated principles (Packer, 2017). The guiding assumptions in behaviorism include the utilization of experiments, observation, and other scientific methods. According to this framework, behavior is a product of stimuli and response, while learning is conditioned by the environment (Dastpak et al., 2017). The most influential behaviorists are Watson, Pavlov, and Skinner, who refined the approach to addressing diverse aspects. Watson, for instance, proved that certain reactions could be conditioned by the experiment involving baby Albert, who developed a fear of a white rat by the use of a loud sound that scared him. Skinner introduced his concept of operational conditioning, and Rivers focused on the specifics of the trial-and-error process (Sadighi & Karimian, 2018). The proponents of behaviorism believed that behavioral patterns could be explained.

According to this framework, children learn to behave in certain ways through reward and punishment. Based on his observations, Rivers, for instance, concluded that children produced utterances and refined their speech based on the reward (Sadighi & Karimian, 2018). These assumptions are grounded on considerable empirical evidence due to the focus on experimentation and observation. If some patterns did not lead to the wanted consequences, they were rejected. However, the theory is characterized by several limitations as it is rather reductionist and cannot explain complex processes. Behaviorists pay little attention to biology (hormones, neurologic aspects, and others). This theory has also raised serious ethical concerns, especially the involvement of children in experiments.

Nativism can be seen as a theoretical paradigm on another spectrum of child development theories as nativists did not agree that major areas of human development depend on the environment. According to the nativist paradigm, children have inborn abilities to learn certain languages and already have a basic understanding of the structures of corresponding languages (Sadighi & Karimian, 2018). Fodor, who is one of the central figures in the refinement of this approach, assumed that children have a universal grammar (Sadighi & Karimian, 2018). The theorists also noted that the human mind is modular as children have mind domains addressing specific aspects of the world.

Chomsky is one of the most influential proponents of nativism, who stressed that all languages are universally similar, while their parameters may differ in many ways (Dastpak et al., 2017). One of the experiments based on this framework involved children who formed complex grammatical structures. Children were asked to create a sentence with multiple utilization of is, and all children succeeded although they were not exposed to such structures previously. However, little empirical data has been provided to support major claims, which results in a certain criticism of this theory (Packer, 2017). This theory also fails to explain the exact mechanisms of learning. Irrespective of these limitations, the approach is still utilized by many theorists and practitioners.

The cognitive theory developed by Jean Piaget addresses such inconsistencies and focuses on exact processes supporting knowledge and skill acquisition. The primary concepts of this paradigm include schemas, cognitive development stages, and mechanisms related to the transition from one stage to another (Dastpak et al., 2017). According to Piaget’s theory, schemas were building blocks of learning that depended on the provision of information that is related to prior knowledge. The stages children have to go through in terms of their development include sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational (Packer, 2017). In simple terms, the human learns to operate the body during the first two years (sensorimotor stage).

From two to seven years old (pre-operational stage), children acquire linguistic skills and their intuitive thinking develops. Self-centered understanding of the world and concepts exists during this developmental phase (Packer, 2017). The concrete operational stage (7-12 years old) is characterized by the development of logic and a less-egocentric understanding of the world. One of the famous empirical studies conducted by Piaget involved the use of beakers and interviewing children regarding some aspects of the observed actions (Packer, 2017). The studies were aimed at evaluating children’s ability to understand the conservation principle. It was found that children younger than seven years old found it difficult to grasp the idea, while older children formed the understanding quite easily. During the operational period, people develop critical thinking skills and become symbolic and abstract thinkers.

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The theory is highly influential these days, although it receives a significant amount of criticism. For instance, Piaget’s methodology is criticized due to the involvement of quite homogenous samples and the lack of generalizability of data. Many children do not acquire skills during the corresponding stages of cognitive development. Some gain knowledge and skills during later stages, while some people may never acquire some skills.

Vygotsky also criticized Piaget’s approach and stated that the learning process was not divided rigidly into stages but was continuous. In contrast to Piaget’s concepts of the universality of language, Vygotsky believed that people’s learning is culturally conditioned (Packer, 2017). The researcher believed that children were born with the inherited capacity for cognitive development based on such basic functions as memory, attention, perception, and sensation (Karpov, 2014). The theorist suggested that effective learning is cooperative and collaborative. An experiment supporting this assumption was the involvement of a child and her father. The girl was given a jigsaw puzzle and failed to complete it, but she observed her father doing the puzzle. The father provided instructions and some comments, as well as an appraisal when the girl was doing the puzzle. Eventually, she became more confident and successful in completing similar tasks. The experiment also illustrates the concept of mediation in the development of mental processes. The father helps the child to cope with the task, as well as manage her emotions and thinking strategies.

Vygotsky also introduced the concept of the mediation of the development of motives. This process is also environmentally and culturally grounded as significant others tend to have an impact on children’s motives and behavioral patterns (Karpov, 2014). Children can be motivated to pursue certain professional paths due to their desire to follow their role models. Vygotsky developed a framework of learning that encompasses several stages associated with zones of proximal development. The child learns to do something with the help of others. Then, the individual learns to do something on their own, and finally, the person can go through the previous stages if some new contexts appear. However, Vygotsky’s theory also faces certain criticism. One of the major arguments made by the opponents of the framework is the lack of empirical data.

On balance, behaviorism, nativism, Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s paradigms provide insights into the process of learning and child development and often build on each other. The frameworks are associated with the focus on different aspects of learning as well. Although all the frameworks have received some criticism, they are still applied, and modern researchers use them to conduct diverse studies.


Dastpak, M., Behjat, F., & Taghinezhad, A. (2017). A comparative study of Vygotsky’s perspectives on child language development with nativism and behaviorism. International Journal of Languages’ Education and Teaching, 5(2), 230–238.

Karpov, Y. V. (2014). Vygotsky for educators. Cambridge University Press.

Packer, M. J. (2017). Child development: Understanding a cultural perspective. SAGE.

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Sadighi, F., & Karimian, Z. (2018). Major models of first language acquisition. International Journal of Educational Investigations, 5(1), 23–29.

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