Category Archives: Lesson Planning

Bruner and the origins of the “Constructivist” approach

Jerome Bruner (1915-2016)

The Importance of Language

Language is important for the increased ability to deal with abstract concepts. Bruner argues that language can code stimuli and free an individual from the constraints of dealing only with appearances, to provide a more complex yet flexible cognition.

The use of words can aid the development of the concepts they represent and can remove the constraints of the “here & now” concept. Basically, he sees the infant as an intelligent & active problem solver from birth, with intellectual abilities basically similar to those of the mature adult.

Educational Implications

For Bruner (1961), the purpose of education is not to impart knowledge, but instead to facilitate a child’s thinking and problem solving skills which can then be transferred to a range of situations. Specifically, education should also develop symbolic thinking in children.

In 1960 Bruner’s text, The Process of Education was published. The main premise of Bruner’s text was that students are active learners who construct their own knowledge.

Bruner (1960) opposed Piaget’s notion of readiness. He argued that schools waste time trying to match the complexity of subject material to a child’s cognitive stage of development. This means students are held back by teachers as certain topics are deemed too difficult to understand and must be taught when the teacher believes the child has reached the appropriate state of cognitive maturity.

Bruner (1960) adopts a different view and believes a child (of any age) is capable of understanding complex information: ‘We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’. (p. 33)

Bruner (1960) explained how this was possible through the concept of the spiral curriculum. This involved information being structured so that complex ideas can be taught at a simplified level first, and then re-visited at more complex levels later on. Therefore, subjects would be taught at levels of gradually increasing difficultly (hence the spiral analogy). Ideally, teaching his way should lead to children being able to solve problems by themselves.

Bruner (1961) proposes that learners’ construct their own knowledge and do this by organizing and categorizing information using a coding system. Bruner believed that the most effective way to develop a coding system is to discover it rather than being told it by the teacher. The concept of discovery learningimplies that students construct their own knowledge for themselves (also known as a constructivist approach).

The role of the teacher should not be to teach information by rote learning, but instead to facilitate the learning process. This means that a good teacher will design lessons that help student discover the relationship between bits of information. To do this a teacher must give students the information they need, but without organizing for them. The use of the spiral curriculum can aid the process of discovery learning.

Bruner and Vygotsky

Both Bruner and Vygotsky emphasise a child’s environment, especially the social environment, more than Piaget did. Both agree that adults should play an active role in assisting the child’s learning.

Bruner, like Vygotsky, emphasized the social nature of learning, citing that other people should help a child develop skills through the process of scaffolding. The term scaffolding first appeared in the literature when Wood, Bruner and Ross described how tutors’ interacted with preschooler to help them solve a block reconstruction problem (Wood et al., 1976).

The concept of scaffolding is very similar to Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development, and it’s not uncommon for the terms to be used interchangeably. Scaffolding involves helpful, structured interaction between an adult and a child with the aim of helping the child achieve a specific goal.

‘[Scaffolding] refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring’ (Bruner, 1978, p. 19).

Bruner and Piaget

Obviously there are similarities between Piaget and Bruner, but an important difference is that Bruner’s modes are not related in terms of which presuppose the one that precedes it. While sometimes one mode may dominate in usage, they coexist.

Bruner states that what determines the level of intellectual development is the extent to which the child has been given appropriate instruction together with practice or experience. So – the right way of presentation and the right explanation will enable a child to grasp a concept usually only understood by an adult. His theory stresses the role of education and the adult.

Although Bruner proposes stages of cognitive development, he doesn’t see them as representing different separate modes of thought at different points of development (like Piaget). Instead, he sees a gradual development of cognitive skills and techniques into more integrated “adult” cognitive techniques.

Bruner views symbolic representation as crucial for cognitive development and since language is our primary means of symbolizing the world, he attaches great importance to language in determining cognitive development.

1. Children are PRE-ADAPTED to learning 1. Development is a CONTINUOUS PROCESS – not a series of stages
2. Children have a NATURAL CURIOSITY 2. The development of LANGUAGE is a cause not a consequence of cognitive development
3. Children’s COGNITIVE STRUCTURES develop over time 3. You can SPEED-UP cognitive development. You don’t have to wait for the child to be ready
4. Children are ACTIVE participants in the learning process 4. The involvement of ADULTS and MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE PEERS makes a big difference
5. Cognitive development entails the acquisition of SYMBOLS 5. Symbolic thought does NOT REPLACE EARLIER MODES OF REPRESENTATION
For additional reading on Bruner go here.


Bruner, J. S. (1957). Going beyond the information given. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction, Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1973). The relevance of education. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. S. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R., J. Jarvelle, and W. J.M. Levelt (eds.) The Child’s Concept of Language. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Bruner. Retrieved from


Jean Piaget and Biological Stages of Development

piaget-adaptation cycle

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Piaget’s Stages of Development

Piaget believed that children go through 4 universal stages of cognitive development. A child’s cognitive development is about a child constructing a mental model of the world.

Development is biologically based and changes as the child matures.

Each child goes through the stages in the same order, and no stage can be missed out – although some individuals may never attain the later stages. There are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through stages.

Piaget did not claim that a particular stage was reached at a certain age – although descriptions of the stages often include an indication of the age at which the average child would reach each stage.

Sensorimotor Stage (Birth-2 yrs)

The main achievement during this stage is object permanence – knowing that an object still exists, even if it is hidden.

It requires the ability to form a mental representation (i.e. a schema) of the object.

Preoperational Stage (2-7 years)

During this stage, young children are able to think about things symbolically. This is the ability to make one thing – a word or an object – stand for something other than itself.

Thinking is still egocentric, and the infant has difficulty taking the viewpoint of others.

Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years)

Piaget considered the concrete stage a major turning point in the child’s cognitive development, because it marks the beginning of logical or operational thought.

This means the child can work things out internally in their head (rather than physically try things out in the real world).

Children can conserve number (age 6), mass (age 7), and weight (age 9). Conservation is the understanding that something stays the same in quantity even though its appearance changes

Formal Operational Stage (11 years and over)

The formal operational stage begins at approximately age eleven and lasts into adulthood. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts, and logically test hypotheses.

Educational Implications

Piaget (1952) did not explicitly relate his theory to education, although later researchers have explained how features of Piaget’s theory can be applied to teaching and learning.

Piaget has been extremely influential in developing educational policy and teaching practice. For example, a review of primary education by the UK government in 1966 was based strongly on Piaget’s theory. The result of this review led to the publication of the Plowden report (1967).

Discovery learning – the idea that children learn best through doing and actively exploring – was seen as central to the transformation of the primary school curriculum.

‘The report’s recurring themes are individual learning, flexibility in the curriculum, the centrality of play in children’s learning, the use of the environment, learning by discovery and the importance of the evaluation of children’s progress – teachers should ‘not assume that only what is measurable is valuable.’

Because Piaget’s theory is based upon biological maturation and stages, the notion of ‘readiness’ is important. Readiness concerns when certain information or concepts should be taught. According to Piaget’s theory children should not be taught certain concepts until they have reached the appropriate stage of cognitive development.

According to Piaget (1958), assimilation and accommodation require an active learner, not a passive one, because problem-solving skills cannot be taught, they must be discovered.

Within the classroom learning should be student centered a accomplished through active discovery learning. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning, rather than direct tuition. Therefore, teachers should encourage the following within the classroom:

  • Focus on the process of learning, rather than the end product of it.
  • Using active methods that require rediscovering or reconstructing “truths”.
  • Using collaborative, as well as individual activities (so children can learn from each other).
  • Devising situations that present useful problems, and create disequilibrium in the child.
  • Evaluate the level of the child’s development, so suitable tasks can be set.

For additional reading, graphics, and a video go to Simply Psychology.


Baillargeon, R., & DeVos, J. (1991). Object permanence in young infants: Further evidence. Child development, 1227-1246.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.

Central Advisory Council for Education (1967). Children and their Primary Schools (‘The Plowden Report’), London: HMSO.

Dasen, P. (1994). Culture and cognitive development from a Piagetian perspective. In W .J. Lonner & R.S. Malpass (Eds.), Psychology and culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hughes , M. (1975). Egocentrism in preschool children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Edinburgh University.

Keating, D. (1979). Adolescent thinking. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology, pp. 211-246. New York: Wiley.

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1945). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence.AMC, 10, 12.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Siegler, R. S., DeLoache, J. S., & Eisenberg, N. (2003). How children develop. New York: Worth.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wadsworth, B. J. (2004). Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. Longman Publishing.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Jean Piaget. Retrieved from


Vygotsky (and an introduction to Scaffolding and ZPD)


Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934)
Vygotsky’s main work was in developmental psychology, and he proposed a theory of the development of higher cognitive functions in children that saw reasoning as emerging through practical activity in a social environment.

Vygotsky also posited a concept he called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), often understood to refer to the way that acquisition of new knowledge depends on previous learning, as well as the availability of instruction.

Vygotsky developed a sociocultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as Jean Piaget was starting to develop his ideas (1920’s and 30’s), but he died at the age of 38 and so his theories are incomplete – although some of his writings are still being translated from Russian.

No single principle (such as Piaget’s equilibration) can account for development. Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes.

Classroom Applications
A contemporary educational application of Vygotsky’s theories is “reciprocal teaching”, used to improve students’ ability to learn from text. In this method, teachers and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. The teacher’s role in the process is reduced over time.

Scaffolding and ZPD 
Also, Vygotsky is relevant to instructional concepts such as “scaffolding” and “apprenticeship”, in which a teacher or more advanced peer helps to structure or arrange a task so that a novice can work on it successfully. Vygotsky’s theories also feed into the current interest in collaborative learning (or project based learning), suggesting that group members should have different levels of ability so more advanced peers can help less advanced members operate within their ZPD

Social Influences on Cognitive Development

Like Piaget, Vygotsky believes that young children are curious and actively involved in their own learning and the discovery and development of new understandings/schema.  However, Vygotsky placed more emphasis on social contributions to the process of development, whereas Piaget emphasized self-initiated discovery.

According to Vygotsky (1978), much important learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a skillful tutor. The tutor may model behaviors and/or provide verbal instructions for the child. Vygotsky refers to this as cooperative or collaborative dialogue. The child seeks to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor (often the parent or teacher) then internalizes the information, using it to guide or regulate their own performance.

Shaffer (1996) gives the example of a young girl who is given her first jigsaw. Alone, she performs poorly in attempting to solve the puzzle. The father then sits with her and describes or demonstrates some basic strategies, such as finding all the corner/edge pieces and provides a couple of pieces for the child to put together herself and offers encouragement when she does so.

As the child becomes more competent, the father allows the child to work more independently. According to Vygotsky, this type of social interaction involving cooperative or collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development.

In order to gain an understanding of Vygotsky’s theories on cognitive development, one must understand two of the main principles of Vygotsky’s work: the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

More Knowledgeable Other

The more knowledgeable other (MKO) is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept.

Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case. Many times, a child’s peers or an adult’s children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience.

For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest teenage music groups, how to win at the most recent PlayStation game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze – a child or their parents?

In fact, the MKO need not be a person at all. Some companies, to support employees in their learning process, are now using electronic performance support systems. 

Electronic tutors have also been used in educational settings to facilitate and guide students through the learning process. The key to MKOs is that they must have (or be programmed with) more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does.

Zone of Proximal Development

The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second important principle of Vygotsky’s work, the Zone of Proximal Development.

This is an important concept that relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.

For example, the child could not solve the jigsaw puzzle (in the example above) by itself and would have taken a long time to do so (if at all), but was able to solve it following interaction with the father, and has developed competence at this skill that will be applied to future jigsaws.


Vygotsky (1978) sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given – allowing the child to develop skills they will then use on their own – developing higher mental functions.

Vygotsky also views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies.  He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development. 

Evidence for Vygotsky and the ZPD

Freund (1990) conducted a study in which children had to decide which items of furniture should be placed in particular areas of a dolls house.

Some children were allowed to play with their mother in a similar situation before they attempted it alone (zone of proximal development) whilst others were allowed to work on this by themselves (Piaget’s discovery learning). 


Freund found that those who had previously worked with their mother (ZPD) showed greatest improvement compared with their first attempt at the task.  The conclusion being that guided learning within the ZPD led to greater understanding/performance than working alone (discovery learning).

Vygotsky and Language

Vygotsky believed that language develops from social interactions, for communication purposes. Vygotsky viewed language as man’s greatest tool, a means for communicating with the outside world.

According to Vygotsky (1962) language plays 2 critical roles in cognitive development:

1: It is the main means by which adults transmit information to children.

2: Language itself becomes a very powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

Vygotsky (1987) differentiates between three forms of language: social speech which is external communication used to talk to others (typical from the age of two); private speech (typical from the age of three) which is directed to the self and serves an intellectual function; and finally private speech goes underground, diminishing in audibility as it takes on a self-regulating function and is transformed into silent inner speech (typical from the age of seven).

For Vygotsky, thought and language are initially separate systems from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age. At this point speech and thought become interdependent: thought becomes verbal, speech becomes representational. When this happens, children’s monologues internalized to become inner speech. The internalization of language is important as it drives cognitive development.

‘Inner speech is not the interior aspect of external speech – it is a function in itself. It still remains speech, i.e. thought connected with words. But while in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words dies as they bring forth thought. Inner speech is to a large extent thinking in pure meanings.’

(Vygotsky, 1962: p. 149)

For additional reading, graphics, and a video go to Simply Psychology


Behrend, D.A., Rosengren, K.S., & Perlmutter, M. (1992). The relation between private speech and parental interactive style. In R.M. Diaz & L.E. Berk (Eds.),Private speech: From social interaction to self-regulation (pp. 85–100). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Berk, L. E. (1986). Relationship of elementary school children’s private speech to behavioral accompaniment to task, attention, and task performance.Developmental Psychology, 22(5), 671.

Berk, L. & Garvin, R. (1984). Development of private speech among low-income Appalachian children. Developmental Psychology, 20(2), 271-286.

Berk, L. E., & Landau, S. (1993). Private speech of learning-disabled and normally achieving children in classroom academic and laboratory contexts.Child Development, 64, 556–571.

Diaz, R. M., & Berk, L. E. (1992). Private speech: From social interaction to self-regulation. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Frauenglass, M. & Diaz, R. (1985). Self-regulatory functions of children’s private speech: A critical analysis of recent challenges to Vygotsky’s theory.Developmental Psychology, 21(2), 357-364.

Fernyhough, C., & Fradley, E. (2005). Private speech on an executive task: Relations with task difficulty and task performance. Cognitive Development, 20, 103–120.

Freund, L. S. (1990). Maternal regulation of children’s problem-solving behavior and its impact on children’s performance. Child Development, 61, 113-126.

Ostad, S. A., & Sorensen, P. M. (2007). Private speech and strategy-use patterns: Bidirectional comparisons of children with and without mathematical difficulties in a developmental perspective. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40, 2–14.

Piaget, J. (1959). The language and thought of the child (Vol. 5). Psychology Press.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeships in thinking. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schaffer, R. (1996). Social development. Oxford: Blackwell.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky, Volume 1: Problems of general psychology (pp. 39–285). New York: Plenum Press. (Original work published 1934.)

Winsler, A., Abar, B., Feder, M. A., Schunn, C. D., & Rubio, D. A. (2007). Private speech and executive functioning among high-functioning children with autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1617-1635.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Lev Vygotsky. Retrieved from



An Introduction to Understanding by Design (UbD)



Understanding by Design® (UbD™) is a framework for improving student achievement. Emphasizing the teacher’s critical role as a designer of student learning, UbD™ works within the standards-driven curriculum to help teachers clarify learning goals, devise revealing assessments of student understanding, and craft effective and engaging learning activities.

Developed by nationally recognized educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Understanding by Design® is based on the following key ideas:

A primary goal of education should be the development and deepening of student understanding.

  • Students reveal their understanding most effectively when they are provided with complex, authentic opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess. When applied to complex tasks, these “six facets” provide a conceptual lens through which teachers can better assess student understanding.
  • Effective curriculum development reflects a three-stage design process called “backward design” that delays the planning of classroom activities until goals have been clarified and assessments designed. This process helps to avoid the twin problems of “textbook coverage” and “activity-oriented” teaching, in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.
  • Student and school performance gains are achieved through regular reviews of results (achievement data and student work) followed by targeted adjustments to curriculum and instruction.
  • Teachers become most effective when they seek feedback from students and their peers and use that feedback to adjust approaches to design and teaching.

A detailed slide presentation to “backward planning” can be viewed here. Several other slide presentations are on the same page as the link. 

An Overview of UbD and the Three Page Template can be found here. While you can pay for a subscription to UbD online, a less expensive way would be to purchase the ASCD published book on UbD* (see the link below) and use the web as an open resource.