Sign Learning


Purposive Behaviorisms
Sign Theory
Sign-Gestalt Theory


Combining Behaviorisms, Cognitivism, and Gestaltism into a single theory of learning.

Principal Metaphors

Sign Learning is a mash-up of Behaviorisms, Cognitivism, and Gestaltism. It thus lacks a focused web of associations, and often falls back on Folk Theories – especially the Acquisition Metaphor:
  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … acting framed by coherent mental weave
  • Learner is … an information-processing organism
  • Learning is … acquisition of knowledge through meaningful behavior
  • Teaching is … training; engineering behavior




Sign Learning was an attempt to bridge Behaviorisms, Cognitivism, and Gestaltism. The theory begins by rejecting the cause­–effect dynamics assumed by most Behaviorisms, arguing instead that stimulus–response pairings are actually processed and selected in the mind’s control room to generate a more holistic internal map of the environment. That is, Sign Learning studies learning on the level of purposeful, goal-directed behaviors, rather than on the level of singular responses to singular stimuli. Relevant subdiscourses include:
  • Response Learning (Movement Learning) – contrasted with Place Learning (see below), learning a sequence of actions to accomplish a desired task
  • Place Learning – contrasted with Response Learning (see below), creating a cognitive map that enables one to accomplish a desired task


Sign Learning was subjected to criticisms levelled against all of its source domains. From Behaviorisms, it was accused of lacking evidence and explanations for cognitive processes. From Cognitivism, it was accused of being beholden to observation-based research methods that limited its range of analysis. And from Gestaltism, it was seen as seeking to hijack insights of emerging Coherence Discourses, even while maintaining incompatible assumptions of Correspondence Discourses (apparently without awareness).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Edward Tolman

Status as a Theory of Learning

Sign Learning is a theory of learning – or, perhaps more appropriately, a mashup of theories of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Sign Learning is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Sign Learning falls short on all our criteria of scientific theories. Its attempt at a mash-up of different, incompatible perspectives indicates the opposite of critical attentiveness of underlying metaphors and other commitments. As well, its empirical evidence was drawn strictly from experiments on rats.


  • Place Learning
  • Response Learning (Movement Learning)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Sign Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List