Theories of learning

This unit sets out some theories of learning and how they relate to teaching pupils with SEN. We look at theories of typical development and how they can inform teaching practice for these pupils.

The unit provides an introduction to the theorists:

  • Vygotsky
  • Piaget
  • Dewey

Theories of learning

Child-centred learning

  • Revolves around the learner
  • Teachers act as facilitators
  • Pupils freer to guide their own learning based on needs, interest and abilities
  • Advocated by psychologists Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky and developed by practitioners such as Montessori
  • Widely acknowledged to enhance a child’s learning and improve motivation, peer collaboration, and behaviour in the classroom

Teacher-centred learning

  • Led by teachers
  • Pupils follow instructions on how and what to learn
  • Limits the child’s interaction with their learning
  • Learning is a task, rather than a process of development with personal fulfilment
  • Not considered good practice by the likes of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Montessori


Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934)

Vygotsky was a Russian constructivist (that is to say he believed knowledge is socially constructed).

He was most interested in how pupils’ contact with the world was influenced by cultural tools, which helped them to construct knowledge.

Cultural tools include:

  • Language
  • Thought
  • Play
  • Imagination

Vygotsky believed that language is learned through interaction with adults and peers (through modelling), and is key in the development of abstract thought and the formation of concepts.

Among his key ideas were:

  • The Zone of Proximal Development, which is often incorporated into SEND teaching in the closely related concept of scaffolding.
  • Contingent support, which is the idea that teachers should only intervene in learning when children are really stuck and need assistance to move on to the next step in the learning process.

Vygotsky stressed the importance of collaborative learning, with more able pupils scaffolding those in the group that needed help. He also advocated classroom discussion of ideas and facts, to allow children to collaborate and build knowledge together.