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Theoretical Frameworks for Teaching

Educators often approach their craft from one or several overarching theoretical frameworks, also sometimes referred to as pedagogies/instructional epistemologies. Why is it important to consider theoretical framework? Depending on your outcomes, you may find specific teaching methods/strategies fit better with your framework. You may also find certain frameworks mesh better with your content discipline. Additionally, awareness of a range of frameworks can promote productive experimentation and diversity of skill set.  

No framework is necessarily more effective than another because frameworks only serve to provide a conceptual overview, separate from methodologies or implementation. Though there are thousands of theoretical frameworks leveraged in teaching, some of the more popular frameworks are:

  • Andragogy/Adult Learning Theory – Theorists like Knowles (1980) believed adults are problem-oriented participants that want to incorporate experience and self-direction into subjects or projects that are relevant to their lives. Andragogic education tends to incorporate methods like constructivism and connectivism, leveraging task-oriented processes and projects, also stressing application.
  • Behaviorism – Theorists like Skinner (1953) often focused on observable behavior, believing learning was supported through drill & practice and related reinforcement.  Behaviorist instruction tends to be directive, incorporating lectures and practice problems, often leveraging objective assessments including multiple choice questions or other rote approaches.  
  • Cognitivism – Theorists like Gagné (Gagne, Wager, Golas, & Keller, 2004) focused more on thought processes and structures. For instance, Gagné developed nine events of instruction to describe optimal conditions for learning. Cognitivist instruction often incorporates lecture along with methods like visual tools or organizers to promote retention.  It may leverage objective assessments with multiple choice, though also including response or essay activities for learners to demonstrate thought processes.
  • Connectivism – Theorists like Siemens & Downes (2009) saw learners as part of many nodes or connections, driving their personal learning by leveraging the knowledge of that network, and contributing to the knowledge infrastructure. Connectivist instruction tends to be self-directed, including a variety of information sources/references and is often used in online education. It could also be considered a constructivist approach.
  • Constructivism – Theorists like Piaget (1950) & Brunner (1961) proposed individuals construct knowledge from within, contributing to the process by incorporating personal experience. Constructivist instruction tends to be social and exploratory, sometimes without clearly defined outcomes, often leveraging critical thinking activities, peer review, and/or collaborative projects.
  • Objectivism – Theorists or writers like Rand (1943) believed knowledge exists outside the individual as opposed to constructivist perspectives valuing knowledge from within. Objectivist frameworks can describe both behaviorist and cognitivist perspectives. Objectivist instruction tends to be directive and linear, valuing inductive logic, and often leverages objective assessments.

Additional resources

You can read more about these frameworks and how they might be practically applied through resources such as:


    Brunner, J.S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review.

    Downes, S., & Siemens, G. (2009). Connectivism and connective knowledge: Getting started. MOOC Course, University of Manitoba.  

    Gagne, R. M., Wager, W. W., Golas, K. C., Keller, J. M., & Russell, J. D. (2005). Principles of instructional design. Performance Improvement, 44(2), 44-46.  

    Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy.  

    Piaget, J. (2005). The Psychology of Intelligence. Routledge.  

    Rand, A. (1943). Introduction to Objective Epistemology: Expanded Second Edition. Penguin.  

    Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. Simon and Schuster.