Basic Learning Theories in Psychology

Dolescence is considered a difficult time of life and one in which a number of changes occur as the individual achieves a certain integration of different aspects of personality. One approach to the cognitive and emotional transitions made at different times of life is to consider how the changes in, say, adolescence are linked to a continuum of change beginning in childhood and continuing throughout life. Some theorists, such as Piaget, were interested primarily in the transitions of childhood and youth, while others, such as Erikson, saw all of life as a series of transitions and offered a continuum of stages covering all of life.

Piaget became fascinated in his early studies with his discovery that children of the same age often gave the same incorrect answers to questions, suggesting that there were consistent, qualitative differences in the nature of reasoning at different ages, not simply a quantitative increase in the amount of intelligence or knowledge. This discovery marked the beginning of Piaget’s continuing effort to identify changes in the way children think﷓﷓how they perceive their world in different ways at different points in development. Piaget’s contributions can be summarized by grouping them into four main areas. First, he produced literature on the general stages of intellectual development from infancy through adulthood. This concern occupied him from 1925 to 1940, and after 1940 he began to describe some of the developmental stages in formal, structural terms using models from symbolic logic (Flavell, 1963, 1-9).

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The different stages postulated by Piaget help to explain different rats of learning at different ages as well as the types of learning possible at different ages for the majority of the population. Learning itself is seen by Piaget as a process of discovery on the part of the individual, and learning as a formal activity becomes a system of organization by which instruction is enhanced by the way the teacher arranges experience. Learning is thus experiential, and Piaget suggests that experiences have meaning to the extent that they can be assimilated. Such assimilation does not take place without accommodation, an aspect of considerable importance from the point of view of adaptation and possible development:

One of the principal aims of the teacher will be to present situations to the child which require him to adapt his past experience. The teacher is concerned with facilitating adaptation and assisting the child along the developmental path (Flavell, 1963, 91).

The learning situation thus becomes a means of discovery as the child encounters something that is unknown, new, or problematical for the child. The achievement of understanding of this experiences produces an adaptation, and each adaptation made by the child is a discovery for him or her, an insight made through experience. Such a discovery process is ongoing and is not to be seen as a series of leaps from one insight to another. The process of discovery continues and builds on experiences already assimilated and adapted. The process “is marked out by minute consolidations and extensions of past experience, with perhaps an occasional flash of insight” (Flavell, 1963, 91-92).

There are two principal learning theories in psychology, one of which focuses on the learning process while the other focuses on the capacity to learn. Piaget offered a biological theory of intelligence that was quite different and that he presented as a unified approach to intelligence and learning. Piaget restricted the ideal of learning to an acquisition of new knowledge that derives primarily from contact with the physical or social environment:

He opposes it on the one hand to maturation which is based on physiological processes; on the other hand and most importantly he differentiates it from the acquisition of general knowledge or intelligence which he defines as the slowly developing sum total of action coordinations available to an organism at a given stage (Furth, 1969, 221).

Piaget contends that this general knowledge is actively constructed by the individual who, in constructing this knowledge, lives the process of his or her development.

Piaget had actually started out to analyze the meaning and origin of intelligence, and he defined intelligence as the totality of behavioral coordinations that characterize behavior at a certain stage of development. For Piaget, intelligence was the behavioral analogue of a biological organ which regulates the organism’s behavioral exchange with the environment, an interaction that constitutes behavior and that involves the process of discovery discussed previously. All adaptive behavior in this conception implies some knowing in the form of at least minimal knowledge of the environment. Another way of phrasing this is offered by Furth:

Evolutionary development proceeds in a manner of an organizing totality, not in the sense of an outside influence or purpose that pulls from ahead, or a drive that pushes from behind, but as a regulating factor that is intrinsic to the unfolding of evolutionary organizations (Furth, 1969, 246).

Erikson’s approach is a pscyhosocial theory of development which describes a series of eight stages in the development of the individual throughout life. This is based on the interaction of biological, psychological, and social processes, and it is the interaction of these processes that accounts for the “psycho” (inner) “social” (external) character of development. The stages are described by Erikson as psychosocial “crises,” and the reason for this is that they are intended to represent periods when the individual is particularly sensitive or vulnerable to certain developmental issues. Each of the crisis stages is described by Erikson in terms of its positive outcome or strength “versus” its negative outcome or weakness, and the relative degree to which the resolution of each crisis can be considered favorable or unfavorable serves as one factor determining the outcome of later stages. Each stage thus relates to every other stage (Whitbourne & Weinstock, 1986, 13).

Erikson’s formulation of the eight stages has roots in Freud, but Erikson has added various innovative dimensions. Freud presented an important model of psychosexual development, and he felt that during the first five years of life, the individual was confronted with a series of conflicts which he or she would resolve with varying degrees of success. Freud did not emphasize development to the same extent after this first five-year period, and Erikson has tried to conceptualize these later periods in greater detail and has also developed an analysis of man’s over-all development in these eight stages (Whitbourne & Weinstock, 1986, 13-15).

In these eight stages, each critical encounter with the environment will dominate at a particular period in the life cycle. The conflicts are not completely separated–all eight conflicts are present in the individual at birth, and each of the conflicts continues to play a role, if a minor one, throughout life. The first stage is basic trust versus mistrust as the infant must develop sufficient trust to let its mother out of sight without anxiety. The second stage is that of autonomy versus shame and doubt, and this sense is usually developed through bladder and bowel control and parallels the anal stage of traditional psychoanalytic theory. The third stage is that of initiative versus guilt, the last conflict experienced by the preschool child and occurring during what Freud called the phallic stage. The child now must learn to appropriately control feelings of rivalry for the mother’s attention and develop a sense of moral responsibility. The fourth stage is industry versus inferiority, the conflict beginning with school life or the onset of formal socialization. The child must apply himself to his lesson, begin to feel some sense of competence relative to peers, and face his own limitations if he is to emerge as a healthy individual. The fifth stage is identity versus role confusion, and this is the first stage of what we call adolescence. Identity here refers to the confidence that others see us as we see ourselves, and if an identity is not formed, role confusion may occur, often characterized by an inability to select a career or to further educational goals. The sixth stage is that of intimacy versus isolation. It occurs in young adulthood when people are expected to be ready for true intimacy and when they must develop cooperative social and occupational relationships with others and select a mate. The seventh stage is that of generativity versus stagnation–the individual needs to be needed and to assist the younger members of society, and generativity is concerned with guiding the next generation. The last stage is that of ego integrity versus despair, and this is the time when the way the other conflicts were decided has an influence. If the preceding conflicts were not suitably handled, despair may result in later life (Liebert & Spiegler, 1982, 88-92).

Piaget was most interested in the learning stages for the child, while Erikson carried his stages through the life cycle. Both indicate how the stage of adolescence is part of a continuum, however, prepared for by childhood and leading to adulthood. Further research may differentiate even more divisions over the adolescent years.

  • Flavell, J.H. (1963). The developmental psychology of Jean Piaget. New York: D. Van Nostrand.
  • Furth, H.G. (1969). Piaget and Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • Liebert, R. M. & M. D. Spiegler (1982). Personality: Strategies and issues. Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press.
  • Whitbourne, S.K. & C.S. Weinstock (1986). Adult development. New York: Praeger.

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Basic Learning Theories in Psychology. (2018, Jul 09). Retrieved from