Learning Theories

During a lecture we watched a video in which two groups of children, of different year groups, were allowed to build a bridge from a variety of wooden planks and ramps. The teacher stepped away from this learning situation and allowed the pupils to organise and carry out the task with no interruptions or input. Was this effective teaching? As a first response to this question, I felt it was obvious to say, no. There was no engagement by the teacher, no questioning or pointing in the right direction. The pupils were left to themselves, and gradually, through trial and improvement, they built a bridge, admittedly with varying degrees of success; the older students building something far more practical than the bridge of the younger students. Yet both groups did come to an end result, and were able to organise themselves effectively with a pragmatic approach. It was in fact the space that the teacher had afforded them that enabled them to build their bridges, and this learning experience seemed as effective as one where a teacher tells a class what to do. The pupils are able to explore their own motivation, and build their own understanding of why they want to learn, an important life lesson, as well as being able to learn by doing, which is an important life skill again, as they trial and improve (Phil Race, Making Learning Happen, p.30). From looking at this example I was prompted to look at a couple of other theories of teaching and learning, in order to get an overview in some of the most popular hypotheses, in particular innate and observational learning.

The first to spring to mind was that of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Also known as the observation theory, it is comprised of three influencing factors: person, behaviour, and environment (Boyce, T. Applying Social Learning Theory). This is where subjects will imitate the behaviour of someone, in our case a teacher, because they see this as correct practice. The teacher’s behaviour should set an example to pupils’ of what is expected of them, and what is deemed normal behaviour, and this is anything from the attitude towards their work, they way they speak to one another, how they behave in class, and many more.

Attached is a short clip showing the aggression model of Bandura’s theory, and children’s reaction to a doll after seeing an adult play with it. The results are eye opening and frankly, slightly disturbing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjTxQy_U3ac

In the video we watched in the lecture we did not see whether the teacher gave a demonstration of how they wanted the bridges to built, however, the initial chaotic lack of organisation, and absence of direction by the key stage one students, would suggest there was not. Bandura’s theory only posits that leaving pupils to themselves may be even more dangerous due to the behaviour of peers (Boyce, T. Applying Social Learning Theory); if a more dominant child starts behaving in a particular way, according to Bandura, others would follow suit.

Another popular thesis is that of Vygostky’s Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD for short. This theory, often likened to scaffolding, is when a teacher supports “buds of development” that a pupil is in the process of learning to use but are already in an embryonic state (Vygotsky, p.42, 1935). In essence, what the pupil can do before being helped by the teacher, and what they are able to do following intervention. Vygotsky’s theory, although preceding Bandura’s, is complimentary, in that it  believes that mental processes have to be put where the majority of learning happens, in the context of social relationships (Gray, D. Griffin, C. Nasta, T. Training to Teach in Further and Adult Education, p.30).

Both of these theories deem that social relationships are important, and despite how refreshing it was to see pupils work out problems by themselves, for them to reach their full potential it seems clear that assistance by teachers is essential.


In this diagram we can see, in the dark grey circle, the level the student is currently at, and the black line surrounding it is the maximum level they are able to attain without assistance. Outside of this we see the Zone of Proximal Development. A vast area where the student can reach if they are assisted by a teacher, and beyond this, in white, is an area that is unattainable no matter what. This theory, therefore, conflicts with the original video clip we watched in the lecture, where the teacher allowed the pupils to work with no interruptions. Certainly, particularly with the older pupils, they may well have been able to reach the black circle, their maximum individual potential, but this diagram highlights the disservice to the pupils’ potential the teacher is committing by not intervening and helping the pupils build bridges. Particularly in the first clip where we saw key stage one children struggle to build an effective bridge, where intervention would have improved the learning vastly.

Boyce, T. Applying Social Learning Theory, 2011

Gray, D. Griffin, C. Nasta, T. Training to Teach in Further and Adult Education, p.30, 2005

Phil Race, Making Learning Happen, p.30, 2005

Vygotsky, L. Mind in Society, The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, pp. 33–52. 1935


2 thoughts on “Learning Theories

  1. In response to David’s blog post I to initially think that the video we watched, where the children were left to construct a bridge at their own accord without a teacher, was not entirely a good example of effective teaching. This said, I was able to reflect on what I saw in the video with fellow peers in the lecture and realised what we had really observed. I found myself viewing the data of the video from a teacher’s perspective and the benefits it revealed. We saw that the children had an adequate space in which to learn and also showed evidence of teamwork, asking each other questions, social interaction, problem solving, trial and improvement, planning and various other skills. It was also interesting to see these skills become more developed and defined in the older group of children in comparison to the younger group, showing a trend of progression in their learning and understanding.
    The resources of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory & Vygostky’s Zone of Proximal Development used in the blog are also very interesting points of view and help support the effectiveness of this type of teaching. I found myself being particularly drawn to Vygostky’s theory as it clearly illustrates the areas where children are able to work independently against those where the children will need assistance from a teacher to further their development.
    My previous assumption from the lecture video and from becoming familiar with Vygostky’s theory has caused me to re-evaluate my initial thoughts and understandings. I have learnt that when children are able to work independently it can promote a love for learning whilst building confidence and self-esteem. However this theory can also work the other way in less able children or if the children are left unaided for too long, which is where the teacher would need to step in to help bridge the gaps or further the child’s development. In addition, because there can be varying levels of knowledge and understanding within a classroom, being able to support each child when they reach, as Vygostky’s theory states as, the zone of proximal development, could pose to be somewhat of a challenge to the teacher. To counter argue this last point, the theory is also valuable in identifying the levels at which children’s teaching is at and so it help’s the teacher ‘to be aware of pupils’ capabilities and their prior knowledge, and plan teaching to build on these.’ (TS2b)
    In conclusion I now understand that at times it is good for a teacher to take a step back and separate themselves from certain classroom exercises. If there is too much guidance the learning aspect of a lesson can be lost and the children become dependable, which can hinder their progress as a whole. There are obviously times where guidance is necessary, especially in subjects like mathematics, where rules need to be established, understood and revisited. Furthermore teaching needs to be varied to be able to incorporate such theories like Vygostky’s and Bandura’s, which in turn can promote an effective working environment.

    Department of Education / Teaching Standards https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/283566/Teachers_standard_information.pdf

  2. When watching the video in the lecture which showed children from different age groups trying to build a bridge for the cars to get across I noticed the teacher was not in the video at all. The teacher had obviously told the children they had to build a bridge for the toy cars to cross however, the teacher did not participate in the activity at all leaving the children to do this all on their own. I thought that with the younger children they needed a little more help, that leaving them to do this on their own was an ambitious thing to do and they could have done with some extra guidance when some children went off task. However, with the older children leaving them to explore and interpret the task in their own way was an ingenious idea and you could see throughout the process the children learning to work together, talk through their ideas and choosing the idea with the best outcome. It is important to allow children the freedom to explore and test out their own ideas within the task set, to develop vital social and team work skills.

    Social learning theory by Bandura as David referenced in the blog post, suggests that children from a very young age learn by imitation whether this is by imitating a teacher and learning skills from a teacher or from their peers. This bridge building exercise shows that the children were learning from each other rather than from the teacher and this is also an important part of school education. From the video however, I perceived that learning from peers seems to work better for the older children rather than the younger children as they wanted to play rather than work together to build a bridge.
    Vygotsky also mentioned by David, suggests that children need a certain amount of help from teachers while at school, that they need sufficient scaffolding in place to help them achieve the learning objectives of the lesson and to progress in their understanding. You can see this from the video that the younger children could have done with a bit more help and scaffolding from the teacher, whereas the older children where the scaffolding would have already been in place were then able to use this to help them work together and build the bridge.

    When talking about Vygotsky we must also mention Piaget. Piaget suggests that children progress not with scaffolding but with age and children have to reach a certain maturity to be able to develop further in their learning and understanding. According to Piaget the younger children in this video would not be able to progress to the level of work and understanding of the older children until they too reach that age. However, I agree more with Vygotsky than Piaget that children can learn anything with the right scaffolding, the right help in order to progress into the ZPD and progress in their education. Piaget’s theory to me seems to be holding children back, to progress only when they reach a certain age of maturity. However, in the classroom children are at different stages of maturity however, with the right scaffolding put in place by the teacher I believe any child can progress to reach their potential.

    In order to be able to provide the right scaffolding as a teacher to 30 children in the classroom, where all the children are a different stages of their development is a hard task. This is where I believe subject knowledge plays a big part, if the teacher has a good subject knowledge then they can adapt the lesson planning to suit different children and provide the right scaffolding for each child (TS3,4,5). Teachers also need the support of TA’s and other members of staff especially in the early years to be able to provide the right scaffolding to children and enable them to progress to the next level of understanding.

    In the classroom I have observed teachers who can successfully provide scaffolding for each child and in these classrooms working with peers independently from the teacher is very effective. However, I have also observed teachers providing limited scaffolding to children, concentrating on the children who need the most help while the children who are ready to progress are left waiting and then they get bored and end up off task.
    Therefore, by providing adequate scaffolding to children and allowing them to explore and learn independently from the teacher in classrooms is very important to a child’s development.




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