Last Updated 03 Mar 2020

Key Features of Teaching Approaches

Category Teaching
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Introduction and Background

Social-constructivist pedagogy emphasises the importance of language and culture in the cognitive development of children. Psychologists such as Vygotsky and Bruner state that learning is a collaborative process in which knowledge is constructed as a result of social interactions. They have suggested that in order for children to develop cognitively they must internalise processes external to themselves through the use of language and social interactions (Alfrey, 2003). Motivation to learn is both intrinsic and extrinsic due to learning being a social behaviour. This means that children are motivated to learn by rewards provided by their social and cultural groups as well as having an internal drive to want to learn.

Social constructivist pedagogy emphasises the role of the adult in cognitive development. Vygotsky believed that through language, children are instructed how to think and learn by more knowledgeable members of their social or cultural group (adults, teachers, siblings and peers). He believed that the instruction provided by these adults was essential in order for children to develop an abstract understanding of the world around them. Therefore adults should support children through the learning process as their influences on children’s thinking and learning skills are very important.

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Vygotsky also proposed two stages of development; the zone of actual development in which a child can independently solve problems and the zone of proximal development in which learning takes place. Learning is most effective when a child is working within the zone of proximal development as they are working at a level in which they are not capable of working at by themselves but are capable of reaching with the guidance of teachers or collaboration with peers (Wray, 2006).

As the social-constructivist approach is largely based on the social and collaborative nature of learning there are many implication for learning and teaching methods in the classroom. For example teachers may plan activities which are discussion based such as group work or talk partners as they promote peer interaction and help children to work collaboratively and co-operatively. They not only provide children with the opportunity to use and develop their thinking and language skills but allow children to support each other in their learning. During classroom exchange, children should also be encouraged to express different points of view and ask questions. This is supported by Moore (2000) who states ‘it is important to work towards a student-teacher relationship which invites and encourages dialogue rather than a monologue’ (p.19).

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development also has had many practical implications in the classroom as the activities set by teachers should be appropriately sequenced and be in a child’s zone of proximal development for learning to be effective. However this requires the teacher to know the exact ability of each child so tasks are not too difficult but challenging enough for children to develop and progress. Teachers should also provide scaffolds (e.g. demonstrating and modeling concepts and ideas) to guide and support children through their learning, allowing children to move through the zone of proximal development.

Finally, as there is a large emphasis on the role of culture in the social-constructivist approach, teachers should be aware of the social and cultural backgrounds of the children in their class. Vygotsky believed that the way children interpret the world depends on their cultural or social background therefore knowing the background of a child may explain why a child thinks or behaves in a certain way.

Class room exchanges – an analysis

A Tale of Two Lessons (Goldsworthy, 2000) is a transcript, showing the dialogue between two Year 4 teachers and their class in a science lesson on dissolving. It is possible to comment on how far the social-constructivist approach is being used in classrooms, by looking at how the teachers interact and engage with the children and how the children respond.

How long are the children’s utterances relative to those of the teacher?

Looking at the transcript in Teacher A’s lesson, the children’s utterances are substantially shorter than that of the teacher which could be due to Teacher A only asking closed questions. Teacher A tends to dominate the classroom discourse by using the three part exchange when talking with the children (Coultard & Sinclair, 1975). This is evident when the teacher asks the children whether the sand has dissolved with the water to form a solution in which the teachers initiates discussion by asking a closed question. Pupil Y responds by saying ‘no’ which is then followed by the teacher evaluating the child’s response and in this case responding “Good” indicating that the child has correctly answered the question.

However in the lesson taught by Teacher B the length of the children’s utterances in comparison to the teacher utterances vary depending on what part of the lesson is being taught (introduction, main activity or plenary).

In the lesson introduction Teacher B dominates the discourse by stating the learning objectives and outcomes and clearly explaining to the children what they are going to be doing. This is followed by a short discussion in which the children are given the opportunity to talk to their peers about what dissolving is. This is a key feature of the social constructivist approach as the children are supporting each others learning by working collaboratively to solve a problem. The teacher then takes the opportunity to ask some of the children what they talked about during their discussions. In this part of the lesson the teacher and pupils utterances are of a similar length and unlike Teacher A, Teacher B does not use the three part exchange. For example when the teacher asks Pupil N for an answer and Pupil N responds by saying “We said that you have to mix things up to make them dissolve”. Teacher B does not immediately evaluate the response but asks another question to clarify the child’s understanding – “So you’re saying that dissolving is mixing things up. Have I got that right?”.

The teacher then moves on to explain the main activity to the class and asks the children to work in groups. At this point the teacher dominates the discourse as he/she is explaining what the children are going to be doing during the main activity. The teacher allows the children to work freely whilst moving around and challenging pupils to respond to questions about the activity.

This is followed by a discussion with the class about their findings and a lesson plenary in which the utterances of the teacher and pupils are of a similar in length. The teacher provides children with opportunities to promote their language and thinking skills by posing effective open questions such as ‘What did you think about that one?’ and ‘Can I ask you to tell us why?’. This allows children to expand and explain there answers and encourages children to talk openly with their teacher which is another feature of the social constructivist approach.

How do the teachers initiate talk?

From looking at the transcript, Teacher A and Teacher B use completely different strategies to initiate talk within the classroom. Teacher A tends to use only closed questions throughout the lesson to promote, using questions such as ‘Is it a salt or a liquid?’ and ‘Did it dissolve?’ This type of questions only allow the children to give limited (one word) answers which contrasts with the types of questions used by Teacher B. Teacher B prefers to use effective open questions as they can be used to encourage children to talk more fully and explain their answers in depth. For example Teacher B uses questions such as ‘What did you think about that one?’ which allows children to express their own point of view and explain why they came to a particular conclusion. Also, unlike Teacher B, Teacher A doesn’t give the children any opportunity to rehearse their responses or discuss their ideas with their peers as most of the dialogue in the lesson taught by Teacher A fits in with the three part exchange.

Teacher B also uses other techniques to initiate talk within her class such as group discussions and talk partners. An example of this is the three minute discussion the children have about dissolving at the beginning of the lesson. This allows children to talk with their peers and work collaboratively to come to a conclusion which is another major feature of the social-constructivist approach as it focuses on learning as a purely social and collaborative process.

Teacher B also initiates talk in the main activity of the lesson by posing three key questions on the whiteboard. These questions act as a scaffold to guide and help children’s learning as well as promoting discussion and initiating talk. Scaffolding and teacher modeling are important parts of the social-constructivist approach as they are needed to help children move from the zone of actual development to the zone of potential development, where learning occurs.

How do the teachers respond to what the children say?

Both Teacher A and Teacher B use verbal praise to respond to correct answers that children give, using phrases such as ‘Good’, ‘Right – good thinking’ and ‘Well done, you’ve worked hard.’. When children are rewarded (being praised) for their behaviour they are more likely to behave in that way as they associate the positive rewards with that particular behaviour. This coincides with social-constructivist pedagogy as social constructivists see children’s motivation to learn as both extrinsic and intrinsic (Wray, 2006).

Similarly, both teachers do not give the children the correct answer straight away if they answer incorrectly. For example when Pupil X responds incorrectly, Teacher A gives the child another chance to answer by asking the question again e.g. ‘Are you sureDid it dissolve?’ However as Teacher A only uses closed questions, it becomes easy for the children to guess the correct answer if they have previously answered incorrectly. Teacher B uses hints to guide children to the right answer if they have responded incorrectly, for example ‘I wonder if it’s worth thinking about other senses we could use?’

Also throughout the transcript, Teacher B responds positively to children’s thoughts and ideas by thanking them for their contributions and weaving their response back into the classroom dialogue. A good example of this is when Teacher B responds to Pupil N’s answer by saying ‘So you’re saying that dissolving is mixing things up. Have I got that right?’. Not only does the teacher weave the child’s response back into the classroom exchange, showing that he/she is listening carefully to the children’s responses but also gives the teacher an opportunity to ask a further question to clarify the child’s understanding. This type of exchange promotes a positive atmosphere in the classroom as children realise their responses are of value and therefore will be much more likely to contribute to discussion and become involved in classroom activities.

Do the children pose questions?

During Teacher A’s lesson, there is no evidence that the children pose questions. This is probably because there are no opportunities for the children to ask questions during teaching time as it is mainly dominated by the class teacher.

Similarly, there is no evidence that children pose questions in Teacher B’s lesson. However, the children are given many opportunities to question and challenge each others ideas during group discussion and partner work. In this way children are supporting each others learning by working collaboratively with one another to come to a conclusion, another feature of the social-constructivist approach. This is supported by Claxton and Wells, who stated that ‘members of a younger generation use language among themselves to generate their own, shared understandings and create the new knowledge that they want and need’ (2002, p.149). The children are also given the opportunity to pose questions to the teacher when the teacher is moving among the groups of children in the main activity. Here the teacher challenges the children’s ideas by referring to the three key questions which not only engages the children and makes them feel involved but also allows the children to ask questions about the activity and anything else they maybe unsure of.

Is there any evidence that children are using language to reason and think?

There is little evidence to suggest that the children in Teacher A’s lesson are using language to reason and think as most of their responses are one word answers. The children are not asked to explain or expand on their answers so it is difficult to see whether the children are using their reasoning and thinking skills.

However as Teacher B uses effective open questions, children are given the opportunity to discuss their ideas and explain their answers, suggesting that the children in Teacher B’s class are using language to reason and think. The children in Teacher B’s class give much fuller answers explaining how they came to a particular conclusion. For example Pupil P answers one of the questions by saying ‘We thought about other things that we know are there but we can’t see them, like air.’ This shows that not only can the pupils explain themselves fully but can also give examples (air) to support the answers. A further example of reasoning and thinking skills can be seen when Teacher B asks Pupils R and S why they don’t agree with the rest of the class. Pupils R and S respond by using words such as ‘if’ and ‘but’ to explain their answer. These types of words are classed as exception or condition words and the use of such words can be classed as evidence for children using their reasoning and thinking skills.


From carrying out the analysis of the transcript it is very clear that the two teachers in ‘A Tale of Two Lessons’ are using completely different approaches to teaching.

Throughout the transcript, Teacher A dominates the classroom discourse and focuses on teaching the subject knowledge (dissolving) by telling it to the children rather than allowing children to come to a conclusion by themselves. The teacher uses mainly closed questions, giving the children little opportunity to explain their thoughts and ideas or raise questions therefore the children’s responses are limited. The children are also given no opportunity to support one another or become active in their learning and to some extent the teaching demonstrated in the transcript reflects the approach of the transmission model.

However, the focus of the lesson led by Teacher B is on the social and collaborative nature of learning. Teacher B uses a range of techniques such as effective open questions, group work, talk partners and discussion to promote social interactions within the classroom. This enables the children to support each other in their learning whilst encouraging children to use their language and thinking skills. These features suggest that Teacher B is using a social-constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

These contrasting teaching styles clearly have different impacts and effects on the way in which the children are learning. The children in the lesson taught by Teacher B demonstrate their ability to use their reasoning and thinking skills through the language used in their verbal responses. The ability to use such skills in the context of the science lesson reflects that the children are learning and engaging with the new ideas being introduced to them. However when looking at the children’s responses in Teacher A’s lessons there is little evidence to suggest that the children are using these skills which suggests that the social-constructivist approach identified in Teacher B’s lesson is more effective in supporting children’s learning and promoting the use of important skills (thinking and reasoning). Also the children in Teacher B’s lesson demonstrate a high level of involvement as all the children participate in group work, carry out experiments and take part in the discussions. This is not as apparent in Teacher A’s lesson as there are not as many opportunities for the children to become involved in the lesson. Therefore the social constructivist approach demonstrated by Teacher B is also more effective in allowing children to become active in their own learning.

Overall, the social-constructivist pedagogy demonstrated in Teacher B’s lesson is much more effective in encouraging children to use their reasoning and thinking skills through discussion and social interaction with peers and adults. This teaching style enables children to feel more involved in their classroom environment and is much more effective than the teaching approach demonstrated by Teacher A.


Alfrey, C. (2003) Understanding Children’s Learning London: David Fulton

Coultard, M & Sinclair J, M. (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse: The Language of Teachers and Pupil London: Oxford University Press

Claxton, G & Wells, G. (2002) Learning for Life in the 21st Century: Socio-cultural perspectives on the future of education Oxford: Blackwell

Goldsworthy, A. (2000) Raising Attainment in Primary Science Oxford: GHPD Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd.

Moore, A (2000) Teaching and Learning Pedagogy, Curriculum and Culture Abingdon: Routledge

Wray, D. (2006) Looking at Learning. In Arthur, T. Grainger, T. and Wray, D (2006) Learning to Teach in the Primary School Abington: Routledge

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