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The classics are hard to beat

Mike Gershon provides a crash course in four of the most famous learning theories, with practical tips. Illustrations by Mick Marston

Mike Gershon provides a crash course in four of the most famous learning theories, with practical tips. Illustrations by Mick Marston

In recent months, education policy has swung towards the apparent benefits of rote-learning and placing a greater emphasis on filling young pupils' heads with facts. This approach has been presented as a palliative to the perceived laxity and mindlessness of other methods, which have been loosely, lazily and erroneously lumped together as "lefty" or "child-centred".

Teacher training institutions have similarly been maligned as places designed to brainwash new members of the profession with outdated ideologies. Instead, it is considered to be far better to get the brightest young teachers straight into schools to train on the job without bothering them too much with theories about learning.

With this in mind, now seems to be a good time to look at some of the key theories of learning. The names of the four figures explored in this beginners' guide - Dewey, Maslow, Bruner and Vygotsky - will be familiar to many teachers.

However, it is worth reminding ourselves what their work has contributed to education over the past 100 years. I have provided short explanations of some of their key ideas and a range of practical examples showing how they can be applied in any school today.

Some may still try to dismiss their ideas as "woolly" and lacking in rigour, but it depends on how they are applied, of course.

Simply focusing on rote learning will not help your pupils. Undoubtedly we want children to remember things by heart (not least spellings, times tables and the meanings of words). But that is not to say that rote learning leads to children understanding those things, or that it is applicable in anything more than a small number of settings. Storage of information is just one function of the mind.

I hope these activities, strategies and techniques will be of use to your teaching - and will give you some ammunition to fire back at those who think Thomas Gradgrind is the height of educational sophistication.

Theory 1: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was a psychologist interested in human motivation and development. In his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, he proposed that humans have various needs by which they are motivated. He placed these in a hierarchy, which runs as follows:

Physiological needs (such as food, water and sleep);

Safety needs (protection from violence and harm);

Needs of love, affection and belonging;

Needs for esteem; and

Needs for self-actualisation (fulfilling potential).

Maslow argued that any individual would struggle to fulfil their highest needs if their lower ones were not met first. At the same time, he was quick to point out that needs were not felt in isolation and that at any one time a human being would be likely to experience many different needs, all of which would influence their motivations.

Nonetheless, the point still stands - and certainly accords with most people's experience - that if more basic needs are not met, it is a challenge (and sometimes impossible) to achieve higher goals.

For example, if one is extremely hungry or in desperate need of a drink, it is not so easy to compose a sonnet concerned with the nature of love. Equally, if one feels cast out by one's colleagues or classmates, it is difficult to focus on doing the very best work of which one is capable.

Clearly, Maslow's analysis of motivation has major consequences for the classroom. If schools can help their pupils to satisfy the first four levels of need, the children will be able to concentrate on the fifth: self-actualisation.

Here, for each of those first four needs, are five things that schools should consider providing to their pupils:


Healthy, nutritious and tasty food.

Encouragement to pupils to drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated.

Water fountains for pupils to use.

Education for parents and pupils about the importance of sleep and regular bedtimes.

Toilets that are clean and well maintained.


A rigorously enforced anti-bullying policy.

Teachers visible throughout break times.

Clear expectations around behaviour, supported by consistent sanctions.

A school nurse and first-aid trained staff.

Clearly communicated and enforced rules based on reason and morality.

Love, affection and belonging

An inclusive atmosphere that celebrates diversity.

A variety of lunchtime and after-school clubs catering to a wide variety of interests.

Use of group work and collaborative learning.

A pastoral system that gives pupils peer and tutor support.

An ethos in classrooms which states that all can achieve and all have the means to learn.


Regular praise from teachers, focusing on what pupils have done well in their work, behaviour and attitude.

Peer- and self-assessment that focuses on strengths and improvements (aim to praise at least three things for every one criticism).

Displays of pupils' work in classrooms and communal areas.

Pupils involved in and consulted about major decisions.

Celebration of pupils' success in newsletters, assemblies and local media.

Theory 2: Bruner's scaffolding

Jerome Bruner is one of the foremost thinkers on education of the modern era. Born in New York in 1915, he trained as a psychologist and went on to make major contributions to a number of fields. At the age of 96, he continues to do research at the New York University School of Law.

Of Bruner's many ideas, "scaffolding" stands out for its impact on classroom pedagogy.

It involves giving pupils aids or guides that help them to come to terms with new skills and concepts. As they become more able, these are gradually removed, just as scaffolding would be taken down from a building. The result is pupils who can deal autonomously with new ideas or who can make effective use of particular skills.

When scaffolding is being used, the teacher is helping pupils to move on, to learn and to make progress. It is akin to someone being shown around a field and then, when they know about each different section, being invited to use and explore the field under their own steam.

Here are three scaffolding techniques:

Modelling: the teacher models an idea or skill so that pupils can see, hear or experience it in context. The teacher is providing something that can be imitated and assimilated by the pupil, helping them to come to terms with new concepts. For example, in a history lesson, the teacher may display a source on the board and then show how they would conduct an analysis of this source.

Giving advice: the teacher uses their knowledge to steer pupils in a particular direction. For example, in a PE lesson the teacher may advise a pupil on how to run more efficiently. The pupil then uses the information to improve their performance.

Providing coaching: the teacher explains to pupils what they have done well and why, as well as what they can do to improve. The process involves the teacher expanding on success criteria for the subject, so pupils can imitate and assimilate these (and eventually know and understand them intrinsically).

Theory 3: Vygotsky's proximal development

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who, despite dying in 1934 at the age of only 37, produced a prodigious body of work. In terms of education and pedagogy, his most influential texts are Thought and Language and Mind in Society. The titles of both of these allude to Vygotsky's cultural theory of mind.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) lies between what a pupil can do already and the limit of what they can do with guidance from others. It is the space where pupils can make progress with assistance from an instructor, whom we would normally imagine to be a teacher but who could be another pupil.

Although Bruner's concept of "scaffolding" came later, the two are clearly closely linked.

Here are five ways in which you might use the ZPD in your teaching:

Assess where pupils are in terms of their independent capabilities. Find out which pupils in your class are able to do things on their own and which need help. Use this information to inform groupings and seating plans. More able students can help their peers - acting as the instructor in your stead.

Create open tasks that can be accessed on a number of levels. This will give all pupils the opportunity to work independently. Examples of open tasks include individual writing in response to stimulus material and tasks that involve creating something.

Build different levels of challenge into each section of your lesson. For example, include extension and "super-extension" questions on your slides. These give pupils a range of ways to respond to a specific question or a series of tasks that get progressively more difficult.

Track pupils' targets in the front of their books. Make time during a term to look over these with your pupils. This should help them to become aware of their own ZPD and how it is changing over time.

Identify particular groups of pupils to work with on a one-to-one basis, according to their ZPD. For example, you might identify a particular process that you would like all pupils to be able to do independently. You would then create a group consisting of the pupils who cannot yet do this and work with them intensively until they can.

Theory 4: Dewey's experience and interaction

John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher who had a major influence on both psychology and education.

Dewey conceived the ideal education as one in which the pupil experiences and interacts with the curriculum. He saw schools as social institutions in which individuals receive their first major experience of society. Therefore, he argued, education ought to be not just about learning content, but also about learning how to live - with all the attendant intellectual, moral, cultural and social challenges that brings.

Here are three ways in which you might put Dewey's ideas into practice:

Get out of the classroom. This could involve going to, say, a museum, gallery, place of worship or business. Alternatively, it could entail a walking tour around the local area in which teacher and pupils look at their surroundings through the lens of a current topic or subject. For example, sociology pupils studying crime and deviance could search the local area for evidence of formal and informal social control.

Use discussion. It is present in nearly every aspect of our lives. At work, we talk about what needs to be done and how we will do it; at home, we discuss our plans and how we live together; and when out with friends, we talk about the things we have in common. Using discussion in the classroom is a way for pupils to experience the reality of society - and for them to learn how to engage with it successfully, productively and skilfully.

Give pupils opportunities to be independent and to make decisions. This could involve open, creative or group tasks (in which pupils must discuss, negotiate and work together); activities in which there are a number of possible options from which to choose; and encouraging pupils to learn from and value their mistakes.

Mike Gershon is an author and sociology teacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. His extensive sets of free teaching resources can be downloaded from the TES Resources site at


Self-actualisation means to reach one's potential. In the context of Abraham Maslow, it involves individuals being free to fulfil their creative, moral and problem-solving needs, and to be able to act with spontaneity and without prejudice. It means that people are open to peak experiences such as profound love, rapture and understanding. In a wider sense, it might be likened to an existentialist notion of freedom.


Five further examples of scaffolding:

Connect new ideas to pupils' past experiences.

Contextualise concepts through the use of narrative.

Break a skill down into separate parts and then model each one of these in turn.

Give pupils advice on how to redraft their work before they hand it in to be marked.

Draw attention to the language you use in general in the classroom - this is modelling how to speak in an academic and formal fashion.


Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality.

Jerome Bruner, Toward a Theory of Instruction; The Culture of Education.

Lev Vygotsky, Thought and Language; Mind in Society.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education; Experience and Education.

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