The classics are hard to beat

26th October 2012 at 01:00
As England encourages the brightest young teachers to go straight into schools and train on the job, Mike Gershon offers a crash course in four of the most famous theories of learning, with practical tips for all. Illustrations by Mick Marston

The names of the four figures explored in this beginners' guide - Dewey, Maslow, Bruner and Vygotsky - will be familiar to many teachers, but it is worth reminding ourselves what their work has contributed to education over the past 100 years. So here are short explanations of some of their key ideas and a range of practical examples showing how they can be applied in any school today.

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 (pictured below) as follows:

- Physiological needs such as food, water and sleep;

- Safety needs: protection from violence and harm;

- Needs for love, affection and belonging;

- Needs for esteem; and

- needs for self-actualisation (fulfilling potential).

Maslow argued individuals would struggle to fulfil their highest needs if their lower ones were not met first, but also said 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.

Even so, the point still stands and accords with most people's experience - that if more basic needs are not met, it is a challenge (or even impossible) to achieve higher goals. If one is hungry or in desperate need of a drink, it is not so easy to compose a sonnet on the nature of love. If one feels cast out by colleagues or classmates, it is hard to focus on doing the very best work of which one is capable.

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

For each of those first four needs, thereare 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 well maintained.


- A rigorous anti-bullying policy.

- Teachers visible in 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.

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).

3. Vygotsky's proximal development

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who, despite dying in 1934 at the age of 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 allude to his cultural theory of mind.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD, pictured above) 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 - normally a teacher but it could be another pupil. Although Bruner's concept of "scaffolding" came later, the two are closely linked.

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

- Assess where pupils are in terms of independent capabilities. Find out which pupils in your class can 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 chance 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 one-to-one, 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.

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 or business. Or 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. 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.


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.


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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