Learning theory: Beyond the Three Wise (White) Men

Last summer members of PIoE staff marked hundreds of undergraduate and postgraduate assignments dealing with educational ideas in one form or another. As all good students know, work should be underpinned by theory. But to whom did students refer? Which theorists featured large?

Four Major Theorists: Jerome Bruner, John Dewey, Jean Piaget & Lev Vygotsky

Almost all the work we read was dominated by Three Wise, and white, Men – Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner … and, to a lesser extent, a fourth in John Dewey. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with their work, nor in using them in one’s own writing since they provide powerful and well-established ideas about how learning and development take place; but surely there are other theorists who are not male … or not white … or not psychologists … and/or not yet dead?

Here, members of staff in the Institute of Education offer their thoughts about other thinkers in education: who they are; what they write about; why it’s useful to them – and perhaps to you – in their work; and where to find out more.

Jan Georgeson on Ruqaiya Hasan

Ruquaiya Hasan

Who? – Ruqaiya Hasan was an Indian linguist with a lifetime’s interest in how language works in context. She developed her finely articulated understanding of the role of language in the shaping of social structure through her work in India, UK (with Halliday and Bernstein) and then Australia.

What – Hasan’s work weaves together insights from sociology into the social structuring of language, psychological understandings of the social development of mind with a functional approach to linguistics. We can think of language as a system of choices; when we want to communicate something, we choose how to communicate this content depending on who we are speaking to and what is already understood. Young children learn how to do this through everyday communication with people around them and this means that their system of choices of what language to use is shaped by their social context. Hasan carried out extensive empirical work analysing the everyday exchanges between children and parents in households from different social contexts. Through detailed linguistic analysis she drew out contrasts in the different semantic styles; the ways in which mothers and young children from working class families asked questions, gave answers, issued commands, made requests and handled reasoning differed linguistically from the way these things happened in middle class households. Furthermore, the ways in which teachers talked echoed the middle-class ways of meaning. This leads to the conclusion that children from middle-class homes have been guided towards ways of using language which prepare them for the uses of language that they meet when they start school.

Why? – I was studying interactional style in preschool contexts with more home-like versus more school-like atmosphere through asking children about photographs of preschool settings. Hasan’s work gave me the linguistic tools to talk about differences in the way children answered my questions. Children in the home-like settings approached the task of working out what is happening in the photographs as a collaborative project on some uncertain object  “out there”, (Child A: he’s laughing at the dog: Child B: maybe he’s scratching the dog); whereas children in the school like settings took a more individual standpoint  (I bet he’s making a picnic).  Making individual  claims to knowledge is a more school-like orientation to meaning-making than tentative suggestions that leave the uncertainty in the object being discussed. This is really subtle stuff, but when these tiny details are placed in the context of Hasan’s coherent analysis of the ways everyday exchanges build into orientations to meaning , the message about the importance of educators’ awareness of variations in children’s language-learning contexts becomes much more powerful

Where? – For a small clip of Ruqaiya speaking at a conference, see here:

See also: Hasan, Ruqaiya. 2009. Semantic Variation: Meaning in Society and Sociolinguistics. Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan, Vol. 2, ed. J. Webster. London: Equinox.

Ahmar Mahboob (2015) Language, literacy, education, and empowerment: a tribute to Ruqaiya Hasan, Journal of World Languages, 2:2-3, 144-155, DOI: 10.1080/21698252.2016.1191140

A useful introduction – and insight into the breadth of her work in a discussion on (language) education in Pakistan, including types of literacy, language development, semantic variation, importance of grammar and cross-cultural education.

Liz Done on Laurel Richardson

Laurel Richardson

Who? – Laurel Richardson is a writer and sociologist who developed writing as a method of inquiry and creative-analytical research practices in the 1990s and 2000s, thereby subverting prevailing conventions around academic writing.

What? – Richardson’s work can be conceived as a postmodernist auto-ethnography where writing involves the exploration of social and socio-political contexts and the production of, necessarily, local or partial truths. Writing for Richardson is also one way in which the self is constituted and reconstituted. Like Foucault, she views academic research as prompted by biographical concerns. She sees writing as a dynamic process that can help us to understand the social and educational realities that we both routinely enact and may wish to challenge. Crucially, Richardson argues that some experimentation by students with creative-analytical research practices can work to benefit their academic writing more generally. From a social justice perspective, it is this possibility of democratising education through the enhancing of writing skills that is so appealing. Richardson is particularly concerned with gender but her strategy for developing writing skills clearly has a much wider reach.

Why? – I found Richardson’s pioneering transgression of conventional positivistic qualitative research strategies to be very useful in the early stages of my own doctoral journey. She inspires confidence in students drawn to creative-critical methodologies.

Where? – For an introduction to her work, see here. Richardson’s early work includes Fields of Play: Constructing an academic life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press and Richardson, L. (1993). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 516–529). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.

Jocey Quinn on Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit

Who? – Rebecca Solnit is an American feminist writer who explores both material practices and cultural narratives to understand multiple relationships: for example, between the environment, cultural history, activism, and politics.

What? – Solnit’s body of work is diverse and prolific. She could be called a public intellectual in that rather than publishing in academic journals she writes books and essays and contributes to the media. Her work is erudite and original and draws on both research and her own history. All her work is connected but I will highlight three of her books. Wanderlust traces the significance of walking across different landscapes and in different times and has influenced a body of writing and research that uses walking as a thinking tool. Men Explain Things to Me was inspired by an incidence of ‘mansplaining’ where a man described and explained one of her own books to her and exhorted her to read it. This essay has since been widely used to evoke the way in which it is often assumed that men have the knowledge (and the right to convey it) and women do not. Finally Hope in the Dark explores responses to disaster and shows that communities of people working together can and have made a difference. Solnit is critical and reflexive, rather than naïve, and she is very angry about patriarchal oppression and abuses of power, including abuse of the environment. Her most recent autobiographical work Recollections of My Non-existence details the way that as a young woman her life was shaped by male violence.  However, within her rigorous gaze she also finds cause to hope and beauty to celebrate and so there is always pleasure to be found in her work.

Why? – I find Solnit’s work inspiring because it facilitates a creative mode of thinking that makes connections across multiple strands of life and equally validates the imaginative and the empirical. It is also fundamentally hopeful, arguing that concepts and values can change and with them social inequalities.

Where? – See an interview with Rebecca Solnit here:

See also

Nick Pratt on Jean Lave

Who? – Jean Lave is an American social anthropologist who has studied the way in which learning takes place in non-formal contexts: such as maths in supermarkets and apprentice tailors in African society.

What? – Her work focuses on the way in which ‘learning’ can be thought of as being more than a psychological change – knowledge in the head/mind – but rather as a change in the way in which people engage in activity. Put simply, learning means being able to operate more effectively, and more centrally, in some form of social practice; not just ‘knowing more’. For example, when a student starts university s/he may be unaware of what to do, how to behave, where to go, what to prioritise etc. but soon learns to be an ‘expert’ student. Whilst one could think of this as being about cognitive development, Lave encourages use to think in terms of what is embodied and learned through engagement in the activity of being a student – and, crucially, the way in which those who are already experts ‘teach’ those who are new through engaging in tasks together. To study ‘learning’ is not, therefore, to study the mind alone, but to look at how society operates and how people learn to fit themselves into a community of practice, engaging in authentic activity with others and identifying themselves in new ways.

Why? – I’ve found Lave’s work really useful in thinking about how children, students and adults ‘learn’ to become expert at different aspects of their lives, including their work.

Where? – See Lave talking about her work here:

Also try reading: Chaiklin, S. & Lave, J. (1996) Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context. Cambridge University Press.

Cath Gristy on Anna Craft

Anna Craft

Who? – (1961-2014) Anna Craft was an educator and is known particularly for her work on creativity. She was a primary school teacher in London and later worked at the National Curriculum Council, as director of the Primary Curriculum review and then as a teacher educator in Universities.

What? – Craft developed her concept of ‘possibility thinking’, the ability that allows us to transform what is to what might be. And in exploring the notion of ‘everyday creativity’ she devised classroom and policy strategies to foster the development of a problem-solving approach across the school curriculum from the earliest years of schooling – an ability she considered a fundamental requirement in today’s complex and fast-changing societies. ‘Possibility thinking’ is at the heart of all creativity in young children, whether they are working alone, in parallel or in collaboration with others. Possibilities are generated by children (and adults) in all areas of learning, whether imaginative play, musical exploration and composition, cooking, mark-making or writing, outdoor physical play, mathematical development or early scientific enquiry. Possibility thinking is the means by which questions are posed or puzzles surfaced – through multiple ways of generating the question ‘what if?’

Why? – I’ve found Craft’s work, which is implicitly embedded in practice, really useful in thinking about the importance of creativity to human flourishing and how educators can promote and support development of creativity.

Where? – For an introduction to Craft’s work read: Craft, A. (2000) Creativity Across the Primary Curriculum. London: Routledge. See her talking about some of her ideas here:

Pete Kelly on Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Who? – Stuart Hall is one of the founding figures of cultural studies. Born in Jamaica in 1932, he won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford in 1951, and went on to become one of the leading public intellectuals of the post-war period. He was Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, and later Professor of Sociology at the Open University and President of the British Sociological Association. He died in 2014.

What? – For Hall, to be part of a culture is to accept and share with others a way of making sense and acting in the world. But in cultural groups, meaning is neither fixed nor transparent; rather it is produced, circulated and consumed, and benefits some participants more than others. Hall links this to the notion that common sense is a taken-for-granted way of apprehending the world which presents unequal power relations – including between men and women, rich and poor, and white and black – as part of the natural order. Indeed, this and other ideas of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, are central to much of Hall’s political thinking, as he shows how common sense leads the socially and materially disadvantaged to consent to their own marginalisation. As such, Hall allows us to think of culture as a process of people acting together to create and renew meaning. He does this to show how inequalities are maintained, as the marginalised consent to their own subjugation, and focuses in particular on postcolonial relations and intersectionalities between ethnicity or race and socioeconomic status.

Why? – I have found these ideas useful when considering why it is that those who are unsuccessful in formal education accept their lot and often blame themselves for their underachievement. Common sense understandings of meritocracy lead students to believe that the most successful are those who most deserve success. This ignores the many social and material advantages that are enjoyed by some students and denied to others, which benefit student achievement far more than how hard an individual works.

Where? – For an introduction to Hall’s life and views listen to this interview with Laurie Taylor:

Also read: Procter, J. (2004) Stuart Hall, London: Routledge.

Cath Gristy on Nel Noddings

Nel Noddings

Who? – Born in 1929, Nel Noddings is an American education philosopher. Starting her professional life as a teacher in public schools, she has worked for most of her life teaching philosophy and as a teacher educator in Universities.

What? – Noddings has made a significant contribution to the appreciation of education. In particular, her explorations of the ethics of care and their relationship to schooling, welfare, and to learning and teaching within families and local communities came at an especially apposite moment. She has been able to demonstrate the significance of caring and relationship both as an educational goal and as a fundamental aspect of education. As a result, Noddings’ work has become a key reference point for those wanting to reaffirm the ethical and moral foundations of teaching, schooling and education more broadly. Noddings has made a substantial contribution to deepening appreciation of what education entails – both in terms of the direction it takes (education for public and home life), and around the significance of caring. She shows that caring is a moral attitude ‘informed by the complex skills of interpersonal reasoning, that it is neither without its own forms of rigour nor somehow less professional than the calculated skills of formal logic’ (Finders 2001: 214) and so provides us with a further illumination of the ways in which ‘good’ practitioners think.

Why? – I like putting Noddings’ ideas to work on when the focus of education moves away from learners as humans. It provides a useful reminder of the centrality of relationships in education.

Where? – See Noddings in conversation talking about Education for Caring here:

And for an introduction to Noddings’ work see the excellent INFED webpages https://infed.org/mobi/nel-noddings-the-ethics-of-care-and-education/ and read: Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: an alternative approach to education, New York: Teachers College Press.

Ulrike Hohmann on Berry Mayall

Who? – Berry Mayall is Professor Emerita of Childhood Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, London, drawing on feminism to contribute to the development of the sociology of childhood.

What? – She has studied, over many years, the daily lives of children and their parents. She shows that the sociology of childhood positions children as social agents and childhood as part of the social structure in a given society. She researched inter-generational relationships between children and adults. The studies show children’s contribution to the division of labour and their involvement in ‘people work’, caring for and caring about people, and as taking up economic and social responsibility to their family and community. Insights include the differences between children’s lives in schools and at homes and how children mediate between these two domains. These insights counteract the concept of the child as incompetent and dependent and emphasise the process of becoming an adult. Mayall’s work supports stepping away from narrow interpretation of developmental psychology as found, at times, guiding policy and practice in education. A concept of childhood as permanent social category paves the way to developing the notion of standpoint in childhood studies. The sociology of childhood is a political enterprise and research tools and methods should be used to raise the status of childhood.

Why? – Educationalists should benefit from a broader, sociological view of childhood. Anyone working with children can learn from Mayall’s respectful research with children and their families. Any feminist who feels uncomfortable with conceptualising children as adversaries to women, can find relief in an approach that foregrounds the nuanced and rich relationships between children and their mothers and fathers.

Where? – This reference draws together much of her research projects: Mayall, B. (2002) Towards a Sociology for Childhood: Thinking from Children’s Lives. Buckingham: Open University Press. See a short clip of Berry talking here:

Suanne Gibson on Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed

Who? – Sara Ahmed is a contemporary feminist writer and academic. She writes on and across the intersections of gender, ‘race’ and queer studies.

What? – My reading of her work understands it as a source to challenge hegemony, i.e. traditional ways of doing and being (culture as well as process). Her publications and well-argued perspectives pull the curtain on that which oppresses and excludes, through the positioning of particular minority or social groups, in ways that serve to replicate discrimination and injustice. Ahmed (2012) argues those who see themselves as workers and/or advocates for social justice and ‘diversity’ in education, will regularly find themselves pushing against the dominant flow.

Why? – I have found Ahmed’s work illuminating and articulate in matters of education language and policy, specifically that of ‘diversity’ and in particular institutionalized forms of diversity as policy and practice. She unpacks and explores the clear paradox of much of this work – providing thinkers, students, advocates and authors in the social justice field with much material to chew on and justify their continued pushing forward for change!

Where? – For an introduction to Ahmed, her story and her work please see her ‘Feminist Killjoys‘ blog and read: Ahmed, S. (2012), On being Included- Racism and Diversity in Institutional life, North Carolina, Duke University Press.

To see Ahmed talking about her work on Complaint watch this YouTube lecture (please be aware that it contains descriptions of sexual harassment, assault and racism):

Joanna Haynes on Ann Margaret Sharp

Ann Margaret Sharp

Who? – Ann Margaret Sharp (1942 – 2010) was a North American feminist philosopher and educator who developed the theory and practice of a relational pedagogy known as the Community of Inquiry. This pedagogy is strongly associated with education in and through critical, creative and collaborative thinking.

What? – Sharp co-founded the educational programme known as Philosophy for Children with philosopher Matthew Lipman. She was instrumental in getting this programme taken up in schools and in teacher education around the world. Sharp’s educational preoccupations lay with growth and love. She is associated with a politicised relational theory, ethics of care and the transformatory potential of the community of philosophical inquiry. (The Community of Inquiry approach builds on the work of C.S Peirce). Sharp’s enlivened sense of the Community of Inquiry emerged through her experience of residential work with marginalised teenagers, college teaching, her feminist life, and reading of literature and philosophers that shaped her thinking, including Nietzsche, Arendt, Dewey and Weil. Sharp understood the Community of Inquiry to be a democratic practice that was integral to her teaching and her own thinking; forging inter-generational connections through engaged philosophical dialogue, fed by imagination and experience, pointing to action for the good. Sharp stretched the Philosophy for Children’s movement’s thinking about the Community of Inquiry from that of a pedagogy to a form of life. Her take on the method exemplifies philosophy as a theory of education for an intra-generational art of living, not just among humans, but also concerned with global ecological consciousness.

Why? – Seeing the Community of Inquiry in action in different contexts and experiencing how, through this dynamic approach, participants of all ages not only gain confidence and speak out, but also begin to co-facilitate the dialogue, has convinced me of its merits in strengthening collective reasoning and thinking.

Where? – For an introduction to Sharp’s work I would recommend the edited collection put together by Maughn Gregory and Megan Laverty and published by Routledge in 2018, titled In Community of Inquiry with Ann Margaret Sharp: Childhood, Philosophy and Education.  

There is a wealth of research material on the IAPC website https://www.montclair.edu/iapc/research-in-philosophy-for-children/  and on the SAPERE website https://www.sapere.org.uk/about-us/p4c-research.aspx