Eleanor Bram: The Wise (White) Men Respond

Eleanor Bram

In the last post members of staff at the Plymouth Institute of Education shared their favourite theorists. In part this was to offer readers potential new insights into educational thinking, but also (with a nod to the coming festive season) to show that there are plenty of alternatives to the most popular and commonly used Three Wise MenVygotsky, Bruner, Piaget (and, to a lesser extent, a fourth in Dewey) who tend to dominate students’ work. It aimed to move people away from relying solely on these theoretical perspectives on learning and development, but in this one we want to allow them to respond – from the grave – to persuade you that, despite many alternatives, they still offer significant and useful ideas.

To do this we invited Eleanor Bram, who completed her MA in Education this summer, to share part of her dissertation. Below, Eleanor explains her understanding of all four of these theorists and how their ideas helped her to make sense of using an Inquiry-based approach (IBA) to learning in mathematics. As she notes ‘my focus on the inquiry-based approach necessarily led to an examination of the constructivist theories which have impacted so heavily on our educational systems’.

“The Inquiry-based approach (IBA) to learning has strong roots in constructivism theories and, before looking more specifically at an IBA and its definition, it is helpful to consider these roots and the impact of constructivism on the practice of education over the last half century. The theory of constructivism rests on two main principles: (i) knowledge is not passively received but actively built up; (ii) the function of cognition is adaptive and serves the organisation of the experiential world.  At its simplest level, it can be seen as based on the idea that individuals construct their own knowledge.  Barr and Tagg (1995 cited in Biesta, 2013, p.37), referencing higher education in the US describe this as a shift from the ‘Instruction Paradigm’ (which they claim mistakes the means of education for its end) to the ‘Learning Paradigm’, with its focus on the production of learning.

what nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life’

(Dewey, 1916, p.14).

John Dewey who, along with Piaget and Vygostsky, is often considered a founding father of constructivism, emphasised the importance of inquiry as an instructional approach. An influential philosopher, psychologist, educational thinker and founder of the famous Laboratory school at the University of Chicago, (one of the most distinguished pioneer schools in the progressive education movement) Dewey believed that learning is a social process requiring students to construct their own understanding based on personal experience. For him, a critical function of education was to develop intellect, motivation and wisdom in the young so that they became ‘mature’ and effective citizens: ‘education is not preparation for life; education is life itself’ (Dewey, 1916, p.239). In the year Dewey was born, Darwin published his ‘Origins of the Species’ and there is some suggestion that Dewey may have been influenced by this and that for him, ‘the means of directing the laws of evolution and achieving progress is education’ (Marcell, 1974 cited in Tanner, 1988, p.475).  Speaking for himself, Dewey confirms, ‘what nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life’ (Dewey, 1916, p.14).

Dewey argued against the notion of seeing teaching as conveying off-the-shelf ideas, believing that for someone to ‘think’, they had to engage in the search and discovery of their own way out i.e. what might now be labelled as ‘problem solving, reflective thinking, the method of intelligence and critical thinking’ (Tanner, 1988, p.476).  The emphasis for Dewey can be clearly seen in the claim:

While all thinking results in knowledge, ultimately the value of knowledge is subordinate to its use in thinking. For we live not in a settled and finished world, but in one that is going on.

(Dewey, 1916 p.178) 

For Dewey, these ideas, which in the 1900s were seen as progressive and veering sharply away from the traditional viewpoint that learning arises from instruction by one who possesses knowledge (the teacher) to one needing to receive it (the child), were far more than intellectual  theories.  In 1896 he opened the Laboratory school as a means of generating research that would revolutionise the educational system, providing education specifically opposed to that where ‘normal students acquired simple instructional techniques and exercises, fixed lessons and specific drills’ (Knoll, 2020), and instead focused on curiosity, action and experience and, importantly, involving real-world, relevant problems.  Ultimately, the founding belief – reflected in an IBA – was that by thinking and doing, children would learn, retain and retrieve information better than through using the traditional methods of memorising and reciting.

Like Dewey, child psychologist Piaget who was renowned for his study of cognitive development, also rejected traditional methods of learning, his theory of constructivism being that learning comes from developing knowledge and finding meaning based upon our experiences.  Stemming from his belief that a key part of cognitive development is adaptation (changing to meet the needs of the situation) Piaget’s adaptation process has similarities to the active learning principles proposed by Dewey (Pardjono, 2002, p.166).  In the context of learning, it comprises two crucial parts: assimilation (dealing with the environment in terms of present schema) and accommodation (changing existing ways of thinking). Piaget proposed four principles of active learning:

  1. students should construct their own knowledge;
  2. students learn best when they are active and interact with materials;
  3. learning should be student-centered and individualised;
  4. social interaction and cooperation should play a significant role in the classroom.

For practical purposes, therefore, learning is constructing knowledge and teaching is providing a stimulating environment with hands-on activities.

While the constructivist theories of Dewey and Piaget rely on self-discovery, involving independence in learning and students constructing their own knowledge through focused activity, Vygotsky lays emphasis on the cultural dimensions and the need for social interaction, focusing attention on ‘mental growth which takes place as a consequence of social intervention without any corresponding psychological, neurological or biological changes’ (Moll, 1994, p.335).  In addition, key to his theory is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which he defines as:

The distance between actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.

(Vygotsky, 1978, p.86)

The role of teachers is thus to target appropriately their strategic integration with students within their ZPD to facilitate learning, based on the idea that learning derives best from collaborating with those who are more skilled. Bruner (1995 cited in Pardjono, 2002) explains that through the process of ‘scaffolding’,  ‘children do as much as they can do by themselves while what they cannot do is filled by mother, peers or other tutors’ (p.170).  Dewey’s understanding of constructivism as a theory explaining how deep learning happens, further developed by Vygotsky and others, has become the established paradigm.”

As Eleanor’s writing eloquently illustrates, these constructivist theories offer tremendous insight into learning and development and are invaluable to the way educationists think and talk. It is also worth noting that in the last post we deliberately, and rather mischievously, implied that these ‘white men’ were somehow culturally homogenous. They are, indeed, all white and male, but, as Eleanor points out, they represent a culturally diverse range of views. Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist working in the early days of the soviet era – and hence inevitably worked on ‘social’ views of learning. Piaget was Swiss and a geneticist – hence his focus on developmental stages. Bruner was American and his work on a ‘science of learning’ was rooted in the 1960s and the scientific revolution that accompanied the Space Race between USA and the USSR. And Dewey, though also American, worked between 1884 and 1930 and from a philosophical tradition that emphasised what it was to be a person in the world – hence his focus on experience and change.

Whatever your take, we hope the last two posts, together, have opened up a space in which to think about learning and development; its complexity, the different philosophical and disciplinary roots from which one can makes sense of it, and the many people who have, and still are, trying to do so.

For those who want to follow this up …

Eleanor notes that

Although I did not know it (or consciously at least) before my studies, it is impossible to truly understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of every syllabus, curriculum and lesson plan, without exploring the underlying theories to learning and teaching and how they have been evolved by successive researchers and theorists to shape current thinking.

Eleanor mentions this paper in her writing: Barr, R., & Tagg, J.T. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27 (November/December), pp.12–25. [Read it here].

Dewey – try reading: Dewey, J. (1938) Experience & Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi. [Here]

Vygotsky – for a brief intro to his ideas about thought and language in social interaction, and the ZPD, see this video:

Bruner: For an introduction look at

McLeod, S. A. (2019, July 11). Bruner – learning theory in education. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/bruner.html

Read: Bruner, J. S. (2009) Actual minds, possible worlds. Harvard University Press.

See Bruner, aged 99, discussing Teaching and its effect on Learning …

Piaget: For an introduction to his work see

McLeod, S. A. (2018, June 06). Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html

Read: Piaget, J. (1952) The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press.

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