Secondary learning
Secondary learning

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.3 Social constructivism

Social constructivism maintains the importance of the central role of the child as an active learner.

However, this theory regards learning not as an individual activity but as a social one, in which language plays a crucial role in developing understanding and learning is not considered to be limited by a child’s stage of development.

Vygotsky (1978) was an important contributor to this theory. He identified the gap between what a child can do as an unaided individual and what they can do with the help of a more knowledgeable other. He called this gap the ‘zone of proximal development’ or ZPD. Bruner (1978) later used the term ‘scaffolding’ to describe the way that the more knowledgeable person can support the child’s cognitive development. This more knowledgeable person might be the teacher but might also be other students, classroom assistants, parents or outside groups. Seen in this way, children’s learning is not bounded by the school but is a continuous process that has a particular focus at school.

Described image
Figure 4 A girl and a teacher looking at a book

Activity 4 Defining social constructivism

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Interview with Harry Daniels (The Open University, n.d.)
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Interview with Harry Daniels (The Open University, n.d.)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Listen to the audio interview with Harry Daniels, Professor of Education, Culture and Pedagogy at the University of Bath in which he explains social constructivism.

Identify examples from your own learning or teaching, or from your observations of students, that support this theory. An example would be where ‘scaffolding’ was used or where a more knowledgeable ‘other’ person was involved.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

This theory of learning has significant implications for teachers, such as knowing the current learning of each student and, through careful scaffolding, enabling the student to progress by providing just the right amount of help. Here, then, the teacher does not adopt a passive role in relation to student learning but actively intervenes to help the student move forward. However, this is not easy. How can we be sure that the intervention falls within the ZPD and does not lie beyond it or, indeed, does not ask too little?

These theories of learning are well established and, as you will have seen, manifest themselves in school in many ways. In the next section we will discuss more recent theories that can also contribute to your understanding of how children learn.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371