Learning Theories, Models, and Technology: A Dictionary For 21st Century Teachers

by Terry Heick and TeachThought Staff

Purpose: Improving our chance for a common language in discussing existing and emerging learning trends, models, and technology in hopes of innovation in classrooms, and collectively, education at large.

Audience: K-12 & higher ed educators, researchers, institutions, and organizations globally.

Form: An index of learning models, theories, forms, terminology, technology, and research to help you keep up with the latest trends in 21st-century learning. This page was created and is updated by Terry Heick and TeachThought Staff, who you can contact directly with suggestions for terms, improved citations, corrections, or additions to the index.

Revisions: Persistently updated. In addition to new definitions, models, and strategies, citations and references will also be added periodically, as will updates, corrections, edits, and revisions.

Ed note: As stated, this is an ambitious work in progress that we’re choosing to share as we proof, revise, iterate, and generally improve for wider dissemination. When you find typos, dead links, missing sentences, inconsistencies, or flat-out lies, let us know. ; ^ )


A description of a learning environment where there is one “screen” for each student (whether an iPad, laptop, etc.)

Activity-Based Learning

According to Harvard University, “in Activity-Based Learning courses, students do public service, fieldwork, community-based research and internships in conjunction with in-class work. ABL pedagogy aims to enrich students’ academic experience and learning outcomes by connecting theory with practice, and concepts with methods, using data and insight they obtain through engagement with the larger world.” (1)


The study of teaching adults.


An initialism that stands for “Bring Your Own Device.” BYOD programs allow students to use their own technology (usually smartphone or tablet) in a classroom. BYOD is often seen as a way of solving budget concerns while increasing the authenticity of learning experiences, while critics point to the problems BYOD can cause for district IT, privacy concerns, and more.

Blended Learning

Blended learning is a learning model that combines digital and face-to-face learning experiences. The Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation defines Blended Learning “a formal education program in which a student learns: (1) at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; (2) at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; (3) and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.” It is generally accepted that there are four models of blended learning: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual. The Christensen Institute clarifies that “the Rotation model includes four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation.” (3)

There is some thought that a certain percentage of instruction must be digital to qualify as “blended learning,” but there is no clear industry standard.

Challenge-Based Learning

Challenge-Based Learning is a learning model pushed by Apple that promotes the academic classroom as a think tank to solve authentic problems. It is similar to place-based education and project-based learning as a teaching tool.

Apple defines Challenge-Based Learning as “an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages learners to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems. Challenge Based Learning is collaborative and hands-on, asking students to work with peers, teachers, and experts in their communities and around the world to ask good questions, develop deep subject area knowledge, identify and solve challenges, take action, and share their experience.” (5)

Cognitive Apprenticeship

Cognitive apprenticeship focuses on “learning-through-guided-experience on cognitive and metacognitive skills and processes” (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989, p. 457), instead of the physically concrete craft or trade that is the focus of traditional apprenticeships.

“The method is aimed primarily at teaching the problem-solving processes that experts use to handle complex tasks. Cognitive apprenticeships are intended to enable apprentices to learn strategies and skills in the context of their application to realistic problems, within a culture focused on and defined by expert practice.” (6)

Communal Constructivism

A learning theory “in which networked learners not only construct and assimilate their own knowledge from their own learning opportunities, but deliberately contribute their own learning to a community resource base.”(Holmes & Gardner 2006). (7)

Connected Learning

A learning model by Digital Media & Learning that emphasizes the role of social interactions as a catalyst for learning. (See “Connected Learning: The Power Of Social Learning Models”.) Characteristics of Connected Learning include: Interest-Powered, Production Centered, Peer-Supported, Shared Purpose, Academically-Oriented, and Openly-Networked. (15)


According to Seymour Papert, constructionism is, put roughly, learning by making.

That Papert is known to struggle with the idea of defining Constructionism by a “pipeline” of knowledge-giving hints at its nature–open-ended, learner-centered, playful, non-institutional, non-academic, and so difficult to describe in an academic context.

Papert explained that, while close in meaning and spelling as Constructivism, it is suitably unique:

“Constructionism–the N word as opposed to the V word–shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as “building knowledge structures” irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”

Papert went on to describe Constructionism as a kind of learning which “allows full range of intellectual styles and preferences to each find a point of equilibrium. (Papert, Harel 1991) (16)


A learning theory that suggests that “people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences” (Christie 2005). (14)


According to differentiation expert Dr. Carol Tomlinson, differentiation is not a teaching strategy, but rather a way of thinking about learning. In terms of application it is the specific design of “content, process, or product” according to a student’s readiness, interest, or learning profile. (Citation needed).

Tomlinson explains that “differentiation does not presume different tasks for each learner, but rather just enough flexibility in task complexity, working arrangements, and modes of learning expression that varied students find learning a good fit much of the time.” (22)

In short, differentiation is the process of personalizing universal learning goals for groups of students. As such, it is closely related to (but different than) personalized learning and individualized learning.

Digital Citizenship

Karen Mossberger, Associate Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, defines digital citizenship simply as “the ability to participate in society online.” (9)

Terry Heick offers a definition of digital citizenship as “The quality of habits, actions, and consumption patterns that impact the ecology of digital content and communities.” (10)


Learning expressly through online courses and related digital resources.

Flipped Classroom

Stated simply, a flipped classroom is one where students are introduced to content at home through digital tools (usually video), and then practice it at school under the guidance of a teacher. This is the reverse of the traditional pattern, where students are introduced to content at school, and then practice it at home without the guidance of the teacher (i.e., More Knowledgeable Other).


A tenet of Eastern philosophy and thought for millenia, and more recently repopularized by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, flow is the complete merging of task and doer–a state of being where a body, mind, and task resonate effortlessly and result in improved performance and extraordinary satisfaction.

A useful example of flow from Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play:

“In Bone Games, climber Rob Schultheis recalls how he felt descending a mountain after a harrowing near-death fall: “The person I became on Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life. No regrets, no hesitation; there were no false moves left in me. I really believe I could have hit a mosquito in the eye with a pine needle at thirty paces; I couldn’t miss because there was no such thing as a miss.”

Game-Based Learning

Learning through games (from physical to digital).


The application of game-like “encouragement” mechanics to non-game entities. Put another way, it is making a game out of something that’s not.

Genius Hour

The allotment of a specified amount of time in a formal learning environment for the purpose of self-directed learning. (23)

Google Apps for Education

A collection of software bundled by Google that is available on a subscription model for schools and classroom. Services include Google Drive, Google Docs, Gmail, and more.

Google Classroom

Google describes their Google Classroom as “designed to help teachers create and collect assignments paperlessly, including time-saving features like the ability to automatically make a copy of a Google Document for each student. It also creates Drive folders for each assignment and for each student to help keep everyone organized. Students can keep track of what’s due on the Assignments page and begin working with just a click. Teachers can quickly see who has or hasn’t completed the work, and provide direct, real-time feedback and grades right in Classroom.

Classroom is “available to anyone with Google Apps for Education, a free suite of productivity tools including Gmail, Drive and Docs.”


A term coined by Stewart Hase, heautogogy is the study of self-directed learning. (Citation needed)

Inside-Out Learning Model

A school model developed by Terry Heick and inspired by Wendell Berry designed to immerse student learning in local communities. Rather than an outcomes-based and standards-driven approach, it instead seeks local accountability, new knowledge types, and overtly “human” learning models.

Individualized Learning

The customizing of universal content (e.g., Common Core) for individual students.

See also Personalized Learning, Differentiated Learning, and Self-Directed Learning.

Informal Learning

Informal Learning has been defined as “any activity involving the pursuit of understanding, knowledge or skill which occurs without the presence of externally imposed curricular criteria. Informal learning may occur in any context outside the pre-established curricula of educative institutions. The basic terms of informal learning (e.g. objectives, content, means and processes of acquisition, duration, evaluation of outcomes, applications) are determined by the individuals and groups that choose to engage in it. Self-directed or collective informal learning is undertaken on our own. Informal education or training is distinguished from such self-directed informal learning only by the presence of some form of institutionally-recognized instructor. (Livingstone 2001). (13)

Learning Simulation

Often (not necessarily) digital, a learning simulation is a recreation of a context which allows a learner to bring strategy, tactics, and skills to experiment, play, or otherwise interact with that context’s manipulatives.

Learning Simulation Clark Aldrich defines a learning simulation as “an abstracted interactive environment (or) structure for education in which a learner can take actions and make decisions, and get ongoing feedback and consequences.”

Learning Through Play

The process of acquiring knowledge, skills, or conceptual understandings through play.

According to Johan Huizinga is the critical anthropological text Homo Ludens, play is “an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action.

See also Flow & Play.

Learning Taxonomies

Any framework for thinking (and thus understanding), including Bloom’s TaxonomyHeick’s Taxonomy, and Understanding by Design’s 6 Facets of Understanding. These taxonomies can be used to plan units, lessons, assessments, and other teaching and learning processes.

Mastery Learning

According to Vahid Motamedi of Tarbiat Moallem University, “Mastery learning is a method of instruction where the focus is on the role of feedback in learning. Furthermore, mastery learning refers to a category of instructional methods which establishes a level of performance that all students must “master” before moving on to the next unit (Slavin, 1987). Thus, through one or more trials, students have to achieve a specified level of content knowledge prior to progression on to a next unit of instruction.”

“Mastery learning is used in order to advance an individual’s potential for learning. Compared to traditional learning models, sufficient time, attention, and help are afforded to each student.” (11)


An acronym for Massively Open Online Course, a digital course that allows asynchronous access to content.

Mobile Learning

The United Nations defines mobile learning as “Mobile learning involves the use of mobile technology, either alone or in combination with other information and communication technology (ICT), to enable learning anytime and anywhere. Learning can unfold in a variety of ways: people can use mobile devices to access educational resources, connect with others, or create content, both inside and outside classrooms. Mobile learning also encompasses efforts to support broad educational goals such as the effective administration of school systems and improved communication between schools and families.” (12)

TeachThought is developing a mobile learning framework and definition that will be released in early 2015.

Model-Based Learning

A learning strategy by Terry Heick in which learners analyze an existing model of some kind, isolate one compelling idea, and then transfer that idea into a new circumstance.

Personalized Learning

The process of designing a learning experience for an individual learner, including content, learning model, assessment forms, and mode of knowledge application.

Personalized learning can arise from any learning experience that is self-initiated and self-directed in pursuit of outcomes that are first personal (e.g., curiosity-based, self-prioritized, etc.)

Place-Based Education

Place-Based Education “immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, uses these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum, and emphasizes learning through participation in service projects for the local school and/or community.” (citation needed) (24)


Play can be described as a pattern of free and joyful experimentation with voluntary barriers.

Rather than a merely recreational activity, Terry Heick describes play as “a state of being” often “characterized by unencumbered, courageous, and joyful interactions with people, objects, interfaces, or circumstances.” Heick goes on to say that play is more a matter of “tone and possibility than form or function.” (citation needed) Through play, learners are able to develop a range of intellectual, moral, strategic, physical, or creative capacities.

In Deep Play, Diane Ackerman describes play as cultural and evolutionary.

“Our culture thrives on play. Courtship includes high theater, rituals, and ceremonies of play. Ideas are playful reverberations of the mind. Language is a playing with words until they can impersonate physical objects and abstract ideas….

For all we know, what we call intelligence may be a characteristic exclusively of primates. It may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.” (17)

Problem-Based Learning

Similar to challenge-based learning, problem-based learning is a learning framework that uses (ideally authentic and highly personal) problems to frame learning experiences. Problem-based learning, then, uses the problem to necessitate a need to know in the student, which ideally would create a sense of both motivation and context for the learning experience.

Project-Based Learning

A method of framing curriculum that results in students learning through projects (rather than simply completing projects). (3)

ASCD explains that the “core idea of project-based learning is that real-world problems capture students’ interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience. Advocates assert that project-based learning helps prepare students for the thinking and collaboration skills required in the workplace.” (4)

Question-Based Learning

A learning strategy developed by Terry Heick that encourages learners to form, reframe, and improve questions as they are gather information and adjust their thinking in response.

Scenario-Based Learning

Scenario-based learning is a mode of learning that functions as a social simulation, requiring students to use authentic contexts to solve problems. Sounds a lot like problem-based learning, doesn’t it? It is, but the scenario doesn’t have to be a “problem.” Massey University explains.

“Scenario-based learning (SBL) uses interactive scenarios to support active learning strategies such as problem-based or case-based learning. It normally involves students working their way through a storyline, usually based around an ill-structured or complex problem, which they are required to solve. In the process students must apply their subject knowledge, and critical thinking and problem solving skills in a safe, real-world context. SBL is often non-linear, and can provide numerous feedback opportunities to students, based on the decisions they make at each stage in the process. Scenario-based learning may be self-contained, in that completing the scenario is the entire task, or it may be the first part of a larger assignment requiring the student to complete the scenario, and then provide a written or oral reflection and self-assessment on the process.

As for the research basis, Massey University goes on to offer that SBL “is based on the principles of situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991), which argues that learning best takes place in the context in which it is going to be used, and situated cognition, the idea that knowledge is best acquired and more fully understood when situated within its context (Kindley, 2002)”

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning is a model of learning where the student designs learning goals, pathways, and application. It can be used both formally and informally, for learning both academic and non-academic, in classrooms, homeschool settings, and workplaces. (See Google’s 80/20 rule, or video game developer Valve for more on what this might look like in a professional setting.)

As a phrase, it is often used interchangeably with self-managed learning or independent learning, where students execute teacher-designed learning processes designed from institutional learning goals.

Note: While at TeachThought we think of self-directed learning as something “whole” and entirely personal, we recognize the subjectivity of language, and the relative obscurity, opaqueness, and ambiguity of much of educational terminology (thus this page). In that way, one person’s “SDL” may be another person’s “independent project,” and we respect our own biases, and thus general impotence in the face of this problem.

See also Genius Hour and TeachThought’s self-directed learning model.

Situated Cognition

A learning theory that emphasizes the absolute and permanent relationship between knowledge and context, or “situation,” situated cognition suggests a taut relationship between what one knows, and what one does with what one knows (i.e., knowledge and behavior).

This creates a problematic collision between “the different instructional goals of ‘knowing what’ and ‘know how’ result in different structures and practices of our education system,” and harmfully “decontextualized learning resulted from separation between learning and doing.” (Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989).

Clancey offers, “The theory of situated cognition…claims that every human thought is adapted to the environment, that is, situated, because what people perceive, how they conceive of their activity, and what they physically do develop together” (Clancey, 1997).

See also, Cognitive Apprenticeship. (19, 20) 

Sync Teaching

A teaching strategy developed by Terry Heick that seeks to merge self-directed learning in an outcomes-based learning environment. Also known as Second-Screen Learning, the idea is to give students freedom to follow their curiosity (while adjusting for their own background knowledge) while still be requiring to “sync” with the teacher as the teacher sees fit (e.g., within a time frame, a learning target, etc.)

In this model, the teacher chooses what, when, and how the students “sync”–which would seem to suggest each student have their own screen, but doesn’t necessarily require it. Imagine a teacher is delivering “Content 1,” and each student or group of students are then accessing 1A, 1B, 1C. The topic could be the causes and effects of war, which could also act as the “sync point.” The students direct their own learning around that idea while the teacher facilitates, and chooses when (in terms of timing), where (in terms of space), and why (in terms of purpose) the “sync” occurs (i.e., students redirect attention from their screens to teacher as guide).

Whether this is done in 4 groups with 4 tablets, or 28 individual students in 1:1 or BYOD classrooms, the big idea is the same: students accessing (or creating) personalized content while the teacher guides and facilitates the core of the lesson. (8)

References & Citations

1. Harvard Education Center For Teaching & Learning

2. Clayton Christensen Institute For Disruptive Innovation 

3. The Difference Between Projects & Project-Based Learning from TeachThought

4. What The Research Says About Project-Based Learning

5. Challenge-Based Learning by Apple

6. Cortland.edu

7. University of East London Research in Teacher Education

8.  The Sync Teaching Method by TeachThought

9. MIT on Digital Citizenship

10. A Definition for Digital Citizenship (Heick 2012)

11. Mastery Learning: An Effective Teaching Strategy via New York University

12. United Nations ICT in Education

13. Adults’ informal learning: Definitions, finds, gaps, and future research

14. Presentation: Constructivism: A Holisitic Approach to Teaching & Learning 

15. 6 Characteristics of Connected Learning

16. Situating Constructionism (Papert & Harel 1991)

17. How To Create Learning Through Play (Heick 2013)

18. Deep Play (Ackerman 1999)

19. Dr. Jennifer Brill at The University of Georgia

20. Brent G. Wilson and Karen Madsen Myers at the University of Denver

21. The Difference Between Personal Learning & Personalized Learning

22. (Understanding Differentiated Instruction: Building a Foundation for Leadership Tomlinson, 2000)

23. Six Principles of Genius Hour in the Classroom

24. promiseofplace.org/ and nrs.fs.fed.us/environmental_literacy/best_practices/

A Dictionary For 21st Century Teachers; A Dictionary For 21st Century Teachers: An ongoing index of emerging learning models and learning theories for progressive teaching.