Malcolm Knowles

Malcolm Knowles, a leading thinker in the field of adult education, was born in Missoula, Montana, in 1913. Knowles graduated from Harvard University in 1935, after which he began working with   the author of The Meaning of Adult Education, Mr. Eduard Lindeman. Lindeman’s knowledge and insights would serve as a main source of motivation for Knowles as he embarked on research in adult education.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions to come from Knowles’ research was an emphasis on the difference between the education of adults and children. While pedagogy defined the science of teaching children, the science of teaching adults was not highly researched until Knowles. Knowles' term andragogy  defines a philosophy of adult learning processes. Andragogy recognizes that adult learners want to have a hand in, and be responsible for, their own education and their own learning. More so than their younger counterparts, adults bring to the learning process their own life experiences, which can heavily influence the learning environment. Knowles found that most adult learners are highly motivated by intrinsic factors, such as the need for knowledge and the drive to succeed.

Knowles developed an innovative adult education program for Boston University.  He retired at the age of 65 in 1979, after which he continued to consult, and regularly attend and participate in conferences and workshops until his death in 1997. Undoubtedly, Knowles was a very influential practitioner and author in the adult education field.

John Locke

Considered one of the greatest known thinkers of our time, John Locke was born in 1632 near Bristol, England. In 1652, he received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Oxford University. Locke was highly influenced by the works of Rene Descartes during his studies at Oxford.

Locke believed that the human mind at birth is ultimately a clean, blank slate, and that all knowledge is preceded by experience through the senses. His belief was that as the mind acquires and stores a mix of different sensory experiences, mental links are made, which then lead to new knowledge. Locke theorized that the mind is actually a passive receiver of all sensory input—that the senses provide the mind with images of reality. If the mind did not receive sensation, then there was no perception. Knowledge according to Locke was acquired through external and internal sensation and was not sense perception, but intellectual perception.

According to Locke, the purpose of education was to produce a sound mind in a sound body, with the ultimate goal of serving one’s country. He believed that the level of education one should receive was based on the person’s status in his community. For example, a common man would only require a basic understanding of his trade, along with some low-level social and moral knowledge. However, a gentleman (i.e., a man of high esteem and power), would receive the highest level of scholarship and should then serve his country in a leadership role.

One of Locke’s influential writings on education, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, was written in 1693. This series of letters he wrote to his friend, Edward Clarke, told Clarke how to best educate his son. Locke died in 1704. His educational views unquestionably contributed to the thoughts of every educational theorist after him.

Marc Prensky

Of all the philosophers and theorists discussed in our timeline, the name Marc Prensky may be least familiar to you   However, Prensky’s innovative thoughts and vision on how to best reach the new generation of learners has been highly acclaimed and popularly sought. He is an internationally acclaimed author and speaker at engagements all over the world.

Based on the influence of technology and advanced communication, Prensky is credited with coining 2 well-known terms to define generational differences in how people learn. The "digital immigrant," as Prensky describes, is the group of people born prior to 1970 (some definitions will cite 1965 as the cut-off year). This group of people ‘immigrated’ to technology as a means of survival in the business world  but were not raised with technology as a primary source of production or information. The "digital natives" (those born after 1970), however, were raised in a world of technological advancement. The digital natives, as Prensky defines, have an advanced technological skill set. They are more adept at multi-tasking and always connected.

Prensky’s theories of  how students today learn differently than previous generations of learners has been connected to his research on gaming and learning. Prensky is the CEO of a gaming company that writes and produces games and simulations for the purpose of education and training. In addition, Prensky has  been a teacher at the K-12 as well as college levels.

Marc Prensky lives in his native New York City with his wife and son. He continues to speak at engagements internationally and is the author of two critically acclaimed books: Digital Game-Based Learning and Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning.


Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers of Western tradition and laid the foundation for philosophers after him to speak their mind and embrace truth and knowledge. He was born in Athens, Greece, in 470 BCE, to a sculptor and a midwife. Socrates was a highly educated youth, studying literature, music, rhetoric, and dialectics.

Noted for the oldest recorded technique for teaching, now known as the Socratic method, Socrates led his students to higher-order thinking through questioning and dialogue. He chose to lead his students in discussion, pushing the conversation forward, rather than merely lecturing on his thoughts and observations to his students. Socrates valued intrinsic thought and challenged his students to think for themselves and to look inwardly to find answers.

Socrates solved problems and questions by breaking down issues into a series of questions, knowing the answers would gradually lead to the answer being sought. Socrates influenced many of his students, most notably the philosopher Plato. Though Socrates never actually recorded any of his own teachings, his dialogues were immortalized in written form by Plato and became the basis for Plato's studies.

Socrates believed knowledge was the foundation of happiness and virtue. He taught his followers that the more a man knew; the greater was his ability to reason and to choose those actions that truly brought happiness. The only true virtue, according to Socrates, was knowledge.

Though the idea of thinking for oneself and challenging the thoughts of others was well received from his students, it unfortunately was not well received by those in power who governed the city of Athens.  In 399 BCE, Socrates was brought to trial for allegedly teaching and corrupting the youth of Athens.  He defended himself at the trial and was, despondently, found guilty and sentenced to death.  In prison, approximately one month after trial, Socrates was ordered to drink a lethal dose of hemlock and died shortly thereafter.

John Dewey

John Dewey is possibly the first great American educational thinker on record. He was born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859. He was raised in humble surroundings and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. After a short stint teaching high school, Dewey received his PhD in 1884, and became a faculty member at the University of Michigan and then at the University of Chicago, where he developed many of his theories on education and learning.

Dewey believed all education began shortly after birth and then was continually shaped throughout one’s life in an unconscious manner: in forming habits, in creating ideas, and through feelings and emotions. Dewey also theorized that things are experienced or perceived differently based on who is experiencing or perceiving them. Dewey called this concept "plurality." For example, a botanist may see a leaf one way, a Native American may see it another, and a young child may see it in a totally different way.

Much of Dewey’s thought and focus was spent on education reform. In one of his popular writings, Democracy and Education, Dewey tried to expound upon the democratic philosophy of Plato and others. Similar to Vygotsky, Dewey saw the mind and the formation of it as a public process. He wrote that a person only has meaningful thoughts when part of a society, and in turn, a society has little meaning apart from the lives of the individuals within it. In addition, Dewey felt that more emphasis should be placed on expanding intelligence and advancing problem-solving and critical thinking skills. He valued these skills more so than simply memorizing information. Strangely enough, these methods of thinking are definitely valued today. With the advancement of technology use in education, and access to information being made so easily available, memorization of information is not as beneficial as it was once thought to be.

Dewey’s proposals for modifying the school and school work are still valid today because much of the school environment, governance, curriculum and methods used to teach children today remain caught up in a pre-industrial approach. To that end, a review of Dewey’s comments is worthwhile for educators to reflect on, particularly his commentary on the need for change in order to meet the challenges facing students today.

Dewey ended his faculty tenure with Columbia University in New York City, and passed away in 1952. Dewey is highly ranked as one of the greatest contributors to education


Plato, arguably the most widely read, studied, and influential philosopher on record today, was born in Athens, Greece, in 427 BCE to fairly affluent noble parents. In his youth, Plato was a student and follower of Socrates and later became a teacher himself. He recorded Socrates’ works, creating what is now known as the Socratic dialogues. Since Socrates did not record his own teachings, it is often difficult to ascertain where his thoughts end and Plato’s original thoughts begin. Regardless, Plato’s writings, such as The Republic, are vastly read and discussed in philosophical, political, judicial, and metaphysical circles.

Plato was the founder of the first higher education institution in the Western world, known as The Academy of Athens. As a student of Socrates, Plato adopted the Socratic method of teaching. He challenged his students with constant questioning and examination of issues. Though Plato’s dialogues covered a myriad of subject matters, his teachings holistically set the foundations of modern learning theories. His standards for learning are still embraced today and his influence cannot be overstated.

Although Plato died in 347 BCE, the Academy continued to exist for the next 1,000 years. Just as Plato was inspired by Socrates, he was a role model for future thinkers, most notably Aristotle.

Lev Vygotsky

was born in 1896, in Russia. He studied psychology, medicine, law, and history at Moscow University before becoming a teacher in his hometown of Gomel.

A Marxist, Vygotsky believed in the importance of a person’s social environment. He believed that the influence of one’s social surroundings was imperative to learning and the development of thought. According to Vygotsky, an individual’s community played a major role in making meaning out of one’s life.

A significant contribution of Vygotsky’s to the study of leaning was his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD, simply put, is the difference between what an individual can do on his or her own, and what he or she can do with assistance or guidance from a more knowledgeable other. Vygotsky believed that any task given to a student that lies outside of his or her ZPD would not result in optimal learning. Tasks that could be accomplished alone (that are too easy) are not optimal because the student is not being stretched to reach farther to gain new knowledge or skills. Tasks that are too difficult are not optimal because a student needs to experience some success in order to learn.

Vygotsky argued that all tasks given to students should fall within the ZPD. In other words, they should be sufficiently challenging so that, with the guidance of an instructor, the student will be propelled to greater levels of achievement.

Vygotsky’s brilliance was cut very short when he died from tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 38. Today, our knowledge of Vygotsky’s theories comes from over 100 manuscripts and letters he left behind.

Benjamin Bloom

Benjamin Bloom was born in Lansford, Pennsylvania, on February 21, 1913. He began his college career at the Pennsylvania State University, obtaining both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at that institution, and in 1942, received his PhD in Education from the University of Chicago.

While a faculty member at the University of Chicago, from 1948-1956, Bloom served in a leadership role with a group of educational psychologists from the American Psychological Association (APA). Together, they generated a testing evaluation method that measures levels of intellectual behavior directly related to learning. Low level processing was identified as general recall or recognition of facts, i.e., memorizing and reciting information, whereas the highest level of cognitive process was identified by the group as involving evaluation. This identification process became widely known as "Bloom’s Taxonomy".

Bloom’s Taxonomy can best be described as a diagramed hierarchy of thinking. Often illustrated in the shape of a triangle, the base of the triangle, Knowledge, represents basic factual understanding. Levels of thinking skills then build from that base and include, in order: Comprehension, Application, Analysis, and Synthesis. Evaluation is at the apex of the triangle.

Bloom continued to research throughout his tenure at the University of Chicago and even into his later years. One of his last contributions to educational research was his demonstration of how both home and educational environments could foster individual learning and individual potential. Benjamin Bloom died in 1999, in Chicago, at the age of 86

Burrhus Fredric (B. F.) Skinner

Burrhus Fredric (B. F.) Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in 1904. Skinner attended Hamilton College in New York, majoring in literature, with the intent of becoming a writer. After a review of a philosophical work by Bertrand Russell, Skinner decided to study psychology. He attended Harvard University where he earned his PhD in 1931. He became a tenured Harvard faculty member in 1948.

Considered one of the most influential American psychologists and a well-known contributor to the theory of behaviorism, Skinner believed behavior is largely determined by reinforcements, punishments, or consequences. These consequences make it either more or less likely that the behavior will reoccur. Skinner's basic assertion was that changes in behavior are the results of a person’s response to stimuli that occur within their environment. A response to those stimuli produces a consequence. This process became known as the Stimulus-Response (S-R) theory.

B. F. Skinner’s major contribution to behaviorism and learning theory was his idea of "operant conditioning." Through his research, Skinner discovered that behavior can be conditioned by using both positive and negative reinforcement. Basically, he concluded that in learning, behavior is strengthened if followed by reinforcement, and weakened if followed by punishment. Operant conditioning can often be seen in traditional classroom environments, in classroom management techniques, or various instructional strategies.

B. F. Skinner spent most of his professional life as a Harvard faculty member. He died from leukemia on August 18, 1990, at the age of 86, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Robert Mills Gagné, born in North Andover, Massachusetts in 1916, was a well-known educator who had a profound influence on American education, as well as military and industrial training. 

Robert Gagné

Gagné earned an AB degree from Yale University in 1937, followed by his PhD. in 1940 from Brown University. He served as a Professor of Psychology at various universities throughout his tenure, such as the Connecticut College for Women, the Pennsylvania State University, Princeton, and the University of California, Berkeley. Beginning in 1969, Gagné served as a Professor in Educational Research at Florida State University.  His contributions in the military largely came from his time as the Research Director for the Air Force from 1949-1958. In addition, he served as a consultant to the Department of Defense, as well as to the United States Office of Education.

Gagné is tied to B. F. Skinner’s idea of sequenced learning events due to his development of the “Events of Instruction,” a nine-step process related to the learning process.  The Events of Instruction led to various learning outcomes and supported the internal processes of learning. The nine steps are as follows:

1. Gain attention
2. Inform learner of objectives
3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
4. Present stimulus material
5. Provide learner guidance
6. Elicit performance
7. Provide feedback
8. Assess performance
9. Enhance retention and transfer

Robert Mills Gagné passed away in 2002 at the age of 85. His work had a remarkable impact on learning, thinking, and theories in education, both among scholars and students alike.


Aristotle was born at Stagira, Greece, in 384 BCE. The son of a physician, Aristotle had a natural interest in science from a young age. When he was 17, Aristotle traveled to Athens and joined The Academy of Athens under Plato’s tutelage. Aristotle remained at The Academy for approximately 20 years, until Plato's death in 347 BCE. He later started his own school, called the Lyceum.

Although he was a disciple and scholar of Plato, in his later years of study Aristotle began to fundamentally disagree with his teacher on many major ideas. He did not think of the world in abstract terms the way Plato did. Aristotle believed that the world could be understood at a fundamental level, through detailed observation and cataloging of observable fact. In other words, he believed that knowledge is fundamentally empirical.

Aristotle wrote about many diverse subjects: poetics, rhetoric, ethics, politics, meteorology, embryology, physics, mathematics, metaphysics, anatomy, physiology, logic, dreams, and more. Aristotle was a true Renaissance man centuries before the Renaissance even began. He was the developer of formal logic, creating precise rules to determine valid and invalid reasoning.

Aristotle was perhaps the first problem solver on record when it came to learning. Although his problem-solving method varied, it quite often included identifying and defining the object at hand, consulting and considering previous views on the matter, and finally presenting his own ideas and solutions based on his methods of reasoning. His "scientific method" has stood the test of time and is still used today.

Toward the end of Aristotle’s teaching and studying at the Lyceum, Alexander the Great, who had once been Aristotle’s pupil, began to conquer many Western civilizations. Therefore, Macedonians became rather unwelcome in Athens. Since Aristotle had Macedonian ties, he was asked to leave Athens. He left on his own accord and died shortly after from a stomach ailment in the year 322 BCE.


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