Learning Theories in the Early Childhood Classroom

Within the social constructivist theory, learning is explained as involving a complex interaction of interdependent social and individual processes that co-construct knowledge. The learner constructs his or her knowledge from a range of internal and external experiences where pre-existing schemas and knowledge are adapted to the newly acquired knowledge.

In comparison to other theories of learning, such as behaviourism and cognitive constructivism, the effects on the learner are expanded to include the social setting where the learner is constructing the new knowledge, as well as, the social setting where existing knowledge was constructed. In relation to the early childhood classroom and the interaction of the learner and the teacher, the learner is perceived as being very active. For the proper retention and analysis of new knowledge, the learner will draw up older experiences of the same knowledge (schemas) and compare the two in order to create newer knowledge that integrates new and old.

The interaction between the learner and the social context is emphasized in the social constructivist theory of learning. Mental activity is inextricably bound to its social context (Wertsch, 1991). Vygotsky, who was an early adopter and promoter of social constructivism within education, continued to emphasize the socio-historical context in which the processes developed and functioned (Vygotsky, 1978). As such, not only was Vygotsky interested in the construction of knowledge in the individual, but also the sociology of knowledge.

Within the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) learning is explained as involving an interdependent functioning of multiple intelligences that accounts for all aspects of human cognition. Developed by Howard Gardner, the theory postulates that there are seven or more intelligences that each individual is born with and is needed to live life well (Smith, 2002, 2008). As people develop new knowledge, often these intelligences complement each other (Hatch, Gardner, 1989).

In MI theory, the learner is seen as an active participant in their own learning. When new knowledge is presented to the chid, the child will utilize different intelligences in order to synthesize and analyze the new information. This method of learning stands in contrast to the traditional view of intelligence testing using only two kinds of intelligences, linguistic and logical-mathematical.

What are the implications for the role of the teacher?

In social constructivism, the teacher is a co-constructor of knowledge with the child. Instead of lecturing or direct instructions, the teacher allows and guides the child to come to his or her own understanding of the material. A teacher in the early childhood classroom will aid and support the child in their own discovery and initiative through a concept called, the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD allows a child to tackle a problem that is sufficiently novel to attract and maintain a child’s attention, yet not so difficult that the solution cannot be perceived (Edwards, 2005). To expand this concept to the classroom, the teacher will ‘set up’ activities for students that are just beyond the students abilities and then guide and support the student to come to a solution themselves with minimal help from the teacher.

In MI theory, the role of the teacher is to take a broader view of learning to include all intelligences and consequently plan and deliver activities that will allow children to learn through an intelligence that they are strongest in. Taking this approach to learning, teachers are able to give their students extended opportunities to construct new knowledge that makes most sense to them and can therefore be readily applied to novel situations.

What is the role of the environment in the process of learning? What can we learn from these theories as educators of young children?

In social constructivism, the effects of the environment and the socio-historical context are crucial in understanding how children construct new knowledge. The cultural norms and acceptable methods of learning in a specific culture will heavily influence how education and learning is viewed as a whole and applied in the educational institution. The cultural norms are a consequence of generations of families that have set expectations for what children learn and at what stages of development it is appropriate to  learn it at.

Vygotsky placed major emphasis on the role of social contexts when children face and resolve cognitive conflicts that aid in learning (Vygotsky, 1978). Corsaro and Eder continued to emphasis that group work within the early childhood classroom often leads to conflict as each student brings a unique set of existing schemas, experiences, values and culturally-mediated beliefs to a joint activity (1990). Taking this perspective, children that live in diverse cultural settings will encounter many such conflicting situations, specifically within the classroom, that will increase the opportunities for the children to apply multiple cognitive strategies to resolve the conflict and enhance their learning.

Within MI theory, Gardner speaks about a concentric model of cognition that incorporates different levels of forces that affect how someone learns: personal forces, local forces, and cultural forces (Hatch and Gardner, 1993). Changes in forces at each of the levels will affect the changes that take place at other levels and will determine what the individual is capable of doing (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). As a consequence of this interdependence of cultural forces on learning and development, peers and adults (that represent the culture) will influence what intelligences take prominence over others.

What connections can you make between these theories and your personal understandings of learning and development?

My understandings of learning and development is that nothing happens in isolation. There is always a complexity of interactions as children learn and develop–interactions with peers, parents, teachers, the media, the community, the socio-political environment, et cetera. The social constructivist theory captures the notion that a child’s life involves a complexity of interactions and that this complexity must be viewed and analyzed in order develop a proper and effective early childhood educational curriculum. I also want to emphasize the notion of conflict as being crucial to a child’s development. When the process of conflict resolution is properly supported and guided by an experience educator as with the concept of ZPD and Rogoff’s guided participation (1990) the child has the best opportunities for a rich learning experience.

The theory of MI properly accounts for the fact that children learn in different ways and use different cognitive capabilities to construct knowledge. It also emphasizes the importance of using a diverse curriculum in the classroom that utilizes different subject areas such as music, fine arts and physical activities. For example, if a teacher is giving a lesson on the provinces of Canada, he or she can have students write a song about the provinces, draw the provinces on a map, or physically place themselves on a province on an enlarged map of Canada. Each method of learning in this case will appeal to the learning styles of different students.

What is your critic of these theories?

When developing a comprehensive curriculum for early childhood education, I would advice incorporating several theories of learning to account for some deficiencies of a particular theory. In social constructivism, there may be too much emphasis placed on the notion of ‘learning by doing’ and giving students unrestricted opportunities to discover knowledge within the classroom. Some learners may not have the cognitive capabilities to properly discover the educational opportunities in specific activities, for example, children that are developmentally delayed or have profound cognitive deficits.

If an early childhood educational curriculum completely accepts the MI theory, it would be very challenging to assess each child’s strengths and weaknesses in each intelligence and then plan and deliver a lesson plan. For something as simple as teaching the different provinces of Canada, it may be overwhelming for a teacher to organize all the material and time that it takes to incorporate seven different methods of learning. Apart from the implications of MI in the classroom, the theory of MI has been meet with much criticism from the research community. It has been cited to be untestable and there are issues around the criteria for each intelligence. Despite the criticism, there has been widespread acceptance of MI as a theory that has been applied to education institutions around the world.

What are the implications of these theories to practice in an early childhood classroom environment?

Vygotsky emphasized the social contributions to defining and resolving cognitive conflict (Vygotsky, 1978) and that conflict is an essential aspect of social constructivism and typically occurs in social situations. Conflict is viewed as a powerful method of learning as children compare their currently held assumptions and schemas to the conflicting situation and, consequently, adapt to resolve the conflict. A group activity within a classroom amongst children with unique and pre-existing schemas is often a source of conflict as the children attempt to collaborate on an exercise.

As opposed to Piaget, Vygotsky believed that learning leads development, which has important implications in the inclusive classroom for children with learning disabilities. Taking this view of child development, with sufficient instructions and social support (Mallory and New, 1994), every child is given the opportunity to lead their development, rather than falling into the pitfalls of a developmental diagnosis. The teacher that accepts a social constructivist model will understand that there are many different ways of learning and will utilize different teaching strategies with different students.

The theory of multiple intelligences follows the same framework as social constructivism where the focus is on the interdependence of social and individual processes in the co-construction of knowledge, but continues on to postulate that there are a number of distinct intelligences that can be developed within the individual.

In an early childhood education classroom, the child is not viewed as having a narrowly defined intelligence that only certain tests can measure, but instead can be viewed as having a number of intelligences that can be cultivated and developed using different teaching strategies. MI theory proposes that all seven intelligences are needed to live life well (Smith, 2002, 2008) and therefore teachers need to attend to all intelligences rather than the traditionally defined intelligences of reading and arithmetic.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Corsaro, W. A., and Eder, D. (1990). Children’s peer cultures. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 197 – 220

Edwards, Susan (2005). Constructivism does not only happen in the individual: sociocultural theory and early childhood education. Early Childhood Development and Care, Vol. 175(1), pp 37 – 47
Mallory, Bruce L., New, Rebecca S., (1994). ‘Social Constructivist Theory and Principles of Inclusion: Challenges for Early Childhood Special Education’, The Journal of Special Education, http://sed.sagepub.com/content/28/3/322

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. Oxford University Press: New York

Smith, Mark K. (2002, 2008). ‘Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences’, the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm

T. Hatch and H. Gardner (1993) ‘Finding cognition in the classroom: an expanded view of human intelligence’ in G. Salomon (ed.) Distributed Cognitions. Psychological and educational considerations, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

T. Hatch and H. Gardner (1989). Multiple Intelligences Go to School: Educational Implications of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 8, pp 4-10.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociological approach to mediated action. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). ‘Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.’ Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA

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