Hi. My name is Sean

Psychological Foundations for Education

Fall 2017 - University of West Florida


Introduction: Philosophy and Theory
Philosophy is an important first step for a psychology student to understand. This website will discuss several prominent educational theorists, each of whom has different approaches to answering questions about the human mind. However, why are there differences? Part of the reason there is differences is because the theorists have different philosophies. That is, their guiding principles which help define what reality means. A theorist’s worldview comprises their beliefs about what is truth and what is knowledge. These are essential concepts as they dictate the methods and approach the theorist take when answering questions. What is true, in philosophical terms, is called ontology. Teddlie and Tashakkori define ontology as the “nature of reality, being, and truth” (2008, p. 85). Similarly, what is knowledge, in philosophical terms, is called epistemology. Teddlie and Tashakkori define epistemology as “the nature of knowledge and its justification” (2008, p. 85). As we learn more about the theorist who have impacted educational psychology, consider what their epistemological and ontological beliefs might be. In short, philosophy is a collection of beliefs and ideas that construct the way you think about the world. While a theory is the systematic approach theorists use to explain data collected during experiments (Creswell, 2014).


Though Erickson was trained by Freud as a psychoanalyst, he disagreed with some of Freud’s assertions and Erickson sufficiently expounded on Freud’s premise enough to postulate his own theory of development (Thomas, 2005).  Erickson’s theory of development was based on discrete stages of development:

Trust vs. Mistrust

Trust vs. Mistrust: Age 0-1

Autonomy vs. Shame

Autonomy vs. Shame & doubt: Age 2 – 3 years

Initiative vs. Guilt

Initiative vs. Guilt: Age 3 – 6

Industry vs. Inferiority

Industry vs. Inferiority: Age 7 – 12

Identity vs. Confusion

Identity vs. Confusion: Age 12 -18

Intimacy vs. Isolation

Intimacy vs. Isolation: Age the 20s

Generativity vs. Self-Absorption

Generativity vs. Self-Absorption: late 20 – 50

Integrity vs. Despair

Integrity vs. Despair: Age 50+

Adapted from Thomas, 2005, p. 90
A child’s development is influenced both by forces inside and outside of the home. The child’s parents, primary caregivers, or guardians provide the most direct influence, but other forces outside the home can be just as influential. Erickson posited that these primary influencers change as a child progresses through the stages of development. Some examples include church, television, school, after-school activities, political affiliations, books, and marriage.


Skinner’s theory of operant condition was predicated on the work of a Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov is well known for conducting experiments with animals, primarily dogs, where he would ring a bell during feeding. After sufficient stimulus (i.e., ringing bell + food) the dogs would respond (i.e., salivate) when only presented with the ringing bell. Pavlov’s classical stimulus/response theory generated new ideas in American behavioral psychologists regarding human response to stimuli. Skinner was one of the American psychologists who expounded on Pavlov’s conditioning experiments in an effort to tie them to human behavior. Skinner’s theory is more gradual, less distinct development path compared to Erickson’s theory (Thomas, 2005). Despite the more flexible construct approach Skinner too, he too broke out the stages of development into five sets. However, Skinner’s theory allows for overlap between the five stages; which are:
Skinner believed that by modifying stimulus and response to humans, we could modify human behavior. This notion has long-reaching ramification, not the least of which apply to education. Though Skinner thought behaviorism could open new opportunities for research and application, he acknowledged the practical limits of modifying human behavior. He acknowledged, perhaps more than his peers, that both genetics and environment (i.e., nature vs. nurture) both play an important role in development (Thomas, 2005).
  • lower-nursery

    lower-nursery stage for infants from birth to age 1

  • upper-nursery

    upper-nursery stage for those ages 1 and 2

  • middle-childhood

    middle-childhood phase for ages 3-6

  • later childhood

    later childhood for ages 7-13

  • adolescence

    adolescence after age 13

adapted from Thomas, 2005, p. 132


In contrast to Skinner’s operant conditioning model is Bandura’s model of social-cognition. Bandura and other social learning theorists believe that a child develops not solely from a stimulus and response pattern but imitation and modeling. Bandura (1977) states that the social learning model consists of five main functions: “(1) paying attention, (2) coding for memory, (3) retaining in memory, and (4) carrying out the motor actions, and (5) motivation, which the first four steps require” (as cited in Thomas, 2005, p. 152). While it was not its intent to educate people on Bandura’s theory of social learning, the video below produced by the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) is a powerful visual representation of imitation and modeling.
Trigger warning: the video contains sequences of Abuse (physical, verbal) and implied drug use.


Cognitivism, or cognitive development, was pioneered by two influential theorists: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. In fact, few educational psychologists have had such an enduring effect on American education as Piaget and Vygotsky. Piaget introduced four causal factors to his theory (i.e., heredity, physical experience, social education, and equilibrium) which are still relevant in schools and classrooms today (Thomas, 2005). Like other educational theorists, Piaget identified specific periods of development. Piaget posited that the four causal factors influence childhood development into four levels:

Level 1:

Level 1: Sensorimotor birth -2

Level 2:

Level 2: Preoperational Thought 2 – 7

Level 3:

Level 3: Concrete Operations 7 – 11

Level 4:

Level 4: Formal Operations 11 – 15
Unlike other theorists, Piaget’s level was more flexible and not necessarily tied to age. While he did provide a general range in which the development phase shifted, he suggested that observable behavior was a better indicator of transition. That is, “children’s development is marked by times of noticeable change that are interspersed with times of stability” (Thomas, 2005, p. 211).
Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is widely used as a guide by teachers and in classrooms throughout the United States. Vygotsky described the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (as cited in Silverman, 2011, p. 1). We can see this technique used in educational settings today. For example, peer-to-peer learning is a common method used by educators that are founded on Vygotsky’s theory.


  • Information Processing Theory

    IPT is a broad category which incorporates several theories. Unlike previous theories which had a principal theorist, IPT had multiple contributors. The similar thread to IPT is that it likens human cognition to a computer and focuses on how people input, store, process, retrieve, and utilize information. These notions are predicated on three constructs: sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory (Tangen & Borders, 2017). John Sweller is best known for his study of cognitive load. This idea is based on short-term memory and its inherent limitations (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011). Sweller suggested that instructional design should focus on not overloading the brain’s natural limits of short-term memory. Instruction should be structured in such a way that makes the best use of this limited cognitive resource (Sweller et al., 2011).
  • Humanistic Psychology

    Humanistic psychology is a branch of educational thought that believes humans have control over their own behavior. The theory was led by Abraham Maslow who is renowned for developing the Hierarchy of Needs (Thomas, 2005). An important distinction between Maslow and the other theorists mentioned here is that most of the others centered on early development (i.e., childhood), while Maslow’s work applied as much, if not more, to adults. A second important distinction is that people can move up or down in the hierarchy of needs, it is a continuum rather than a stage (Thomas, 2005).
  • Ecological Theory

    Uri Bronfenbrenner founded ecological theory. The theory consists of five systems: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem (Thomas, 2005). The microsystem includes personal connections to people the subject interacts with on a daily basis (e.g., immediate family). The mesosystem is how those interactions affect both the subject and the other microsystems. The exosystem comprises people who connect with the subject on an infrequent basis (e.g., extended family). The macrosystem is the cultural values and norms which contain the entire system, and the chronosystem are the effects all of these systems have over time (Thomas, 2005).


Creswell, J. (2014). Research design:  Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th ed). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
NAPCAM. (2013). Children See Children Do. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOrGsB4qG_w&feature=youtu.be
Silverman, S. K. (2011). Zone of Proximal Development. In S. Goldstein & J. A. Naglieri (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development (pp. 1590–1590). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_3131
Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory (Vol. 1). Springer Science & Business Media.
Tangen, J. L., & Borders, L. D. (2017). Applying information processing theory to supervision: An initial exploration. Counselor Education and Supervision, 56(2), 98–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/ceas.12065
Teddlie, C. B., & Tashakkori, A. M. (2008). Foundations of mixed methods research: Integrating quantitative and qualitative approaches in the social and behavioral sciences. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Thomas, R. M. (2005). Comparing theories of child development (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Thompson Learning.