Learning Theories and Design Frameworks

Decades of research in Education, Learning Sciences, and Cognitive Psychology informs our work at Opportunity Education. There are many learning and motivation theories and design frameworks that we value and have used to create effective learning experiences for students, mentors, and staff. Each theory and model has strengths and weaknesses and there isn’t a one-size-fits all pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. In fact, some of these theories conflict with one another, but drawing on the best of numerous theories is a strength of Quest Forward Learning. Below, I provide a brief description of three influential theories and two design frameworks, followed by examples of how each has informed the design and implementation of Quest Forward Learning.

Learning and Motivation Theories

Sociocultural Learning Theory


Vygotskey’s (1978) sociocultural theory is a dominant one in education. The theory suggests learning occurs through social interactions — with teachers and peers, family members, friends, and experts. Sociocultural theorists also believe that environments and culture influence learning. For example, you’re likely to learn more about being a doctor while working as a resident with doctors and nurses in a hospital than you would studying from a textbook.

Application in the Design of Quest Forward Learning

  • Two of Quest Forward Learning’s 5 Guiding Principles, “We Learn Better Together” and “Learning Happens Everywhere, and Always” are based on this theory and guide the design of schools, curriculum, and our platform.
  • Mentors and peers play a critical role in the learning process. Mentors help students to understand key concepts and skills and provide ongoing feedback. While Quest Forward Learning has an extensive digital component, our approach to learning avoids the isolation that can come from independent online learning.
  • The Essential Habit “Communicate and Collaborate” focuses on listening to others and contributing through participation and collaboration. Students at Quest Forward Academies and schools practice this habit regularly.
  • Students participate in internships and service learning activities. Through these activities, students gain experience and learn from experts and community members.
  • Quest Forward classrooms and physical learning spaces are also designed with this theory in mind. Schools have tables to promote group work, instead of desks facing the front of the room, for example.



Papert and Harel’s (1991) Constructionism theory is based on two premises: First, it builds upon Piaget’s theory of Constructivism and takes the view that learning involves reconstruction rather than transmission of knowledge. Second, learning is most effective when the learner is exploring something they are interested in and creating and making a product. Often this theory gets simplified into “learning-by-making” or “learning-by-doing.” Problem- and inquiry-based learning are Constructionist methods. The role of the teacher in this theory is to facilitate and guide students as they work towards reaching their own goals. Technology is seen as a tool to support learning. According to this theory, you’re more likely to learn when you’re pursuing an interest that’s personally meaningful and through experimenting and trying to create something, rather than hearing someone talk about it or watching someone else create it.

Application in the Design of Quest Forward Learning

  • Two of the Quest Forward Principles, “Learning Requires Action” and “Learning Improves with Practice” are based on this theory and guide the design of schools, curriculum, and our platform.
  • Courses and quests are designed around problems to solve and inquiry-based projects.
  • Quest Forward Learning supports students in developing three types of skills: Essential Habits (self skills), Work Skills, and Learning Skills. Students develop these skills through practice and application.
  • Artifacts are central to the Quest Forward experience. Students create an artifact in every quest. Typically, they create a more substantial artifact or project as part of each journey. Creating artifacts is a way to learn, but also a way to express learning to others.
  • We refer to teachers as “mentors,” because their role is so much more than instructing students. Being a Quest Forward mentor requires a shift from instructing to coaching, guiding, facilitating, and more.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT)


SDT is a theory about motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). It suggests people are motivated by three basic needs: competence, connection, and autonomy. First, people need to learn different skills and master different tasks, and when they have skills they are motivated to take action. Second, people are motivated when they are connected to others and feel like they belong. Third, people are motivated when they feel in control of their own goals and actions.

Application in the Design of Quest Forward Learning

  • Two of the Quest Forward Principles, “Learning Requires Action” and “Learning Improves with Practice” are also based on this theory.
  • To support autonomy, students are given choices. They can choose some of the quests they complete. They can modify artifacts based on their interests and abilities.
  • Students are given opportunities to pursue interests through projects and internships.
  • Feedback is provided regularly to support growth and improvement, which helps students to develop competence and autonomy.
  • Quest Forward mentors and staff support the whole-person and their academic, career, social, emotional, and personal needs. The schools are supportive communities that aim to make every student feel like they belong (and survey results from previous years show they are successful in doing so).
  • A low mentor:student ratio also helps students to build strong relationships and connections with mentors and peers.

A student's DNA model is displayed in a window at Quest Forward Academy Omaha.

Design Frameworks

Backward Design


Backward design is an approach to creating learning experiences (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). It involves three stages:

  1. Designers identify desired results and outcomes and then goals for the curriculum.
  2. They determine the evidence that students will generate to express their learning, and how teachers will assess that evidence.
  3. Designers create the activities that will lead to the desired outcomes.

Backward design creates a roadmap for developing curriculum and thus helps to create focused and organized sets of materials that promote learning.

Application in the Design of Quest Forward Learning

This design process informs how quest-based courses, journeys, and quests are created. The quest activities and artifacts students create are intentionally designed to support students in practicing and demonstrating the goals of the quests and courses, which include the Learning Skills.

The Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge framework, or TPCK, describes three kinds of knowledge teachers need to effectively teach with technology.



The Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge framework, or TPCK, is useful for creating professional learning programs for mentors and staff (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). It was originally created to guide the implementation of educational technologies. This framework describes three kinds of knowledge teachers need to effectively teach with technology:

  1. Technical knowledge (e.g., how to use the Quest! app),
  2. Pedagogical knowledge (e.g., how to teach with quests), and
  3. Content knowledge (e.g., understand the curriculum materials and content).

These three areas intersect and their relationship is complex, requiring regular and ongoing training and support to effectively implement a program like Quest Forward Learning.

Application in the Design of Quest Forward Learning

This framework guides our Professional Learning Program for mentors and staff. We create professional learning experiences that address all the knowledge and skills mentors and staff need to know and be able to do to effectively implement Quest Forward Learning and support student learning.



Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

Mishra, P. & Koehler, M.J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054.

Papert, S. and Harel, I (1991). “Constructionism”. Ablex Publishing Corporation: 193–206. Retrieved September 20, 2017.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Pearson.



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