Wednesday 19 May 2021

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Learning Principle N°7: Learning occurs in a space where objectives are just beyond but not too far from the learner

Source: T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

Article by Dr Karen L. Taylor, Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecolint

Version française ICI

The implicit reference here is, of course, to Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (zona blizhaishego razvitiya). The ZPD is essentially about the difference between what a learner can do without help, and what they can do with support from someone with more knowledge or expertise. This could be a teacher; it could also be a peer. In the discourse on education, the zone of proximal development has become almost synonymous with scaffolding

In the photo above, the adult has placed the child on a chair so that he can reach the table and participate in preparing a meal. One can imagine the adult explaining to the child what to do with the wooden spoon as he points to the bowl. In fact, one can easily imagine a whole conversation during which the adult introduces new vocabulary to the child. The image conveys a sense of what we mean by guided participation

The child is young; we might assume that the bottle on the left is his. He looks interested in what they are doing and at ease with his environment. The adult has set things up in such a way that the child can participate in the activity comfortably and we imagine that over time, the child will become more autonomous and independent as he develops and grows. One day he will make a meal on his own.

Whether at home or in a classroom, scaffolding can take many forms:

  • Modelling or demonstrating
  • Describing concepts in different ways
  • Presenting new information in multiple modes
  • Anticipating common misperceptions
  • Providing prompts and exemplars
  • Using checklists or cue cards
  • Checking for understanding

The list of strategies one might use to support student learning is almost endless. To scaffold effectively, however, also means taking into consideration the student’s prior knowledge and existing skills when presenting new material (Learning Principle 10). It means providing quality, focused feedback (Learning Principle 8). 

Scaffolding can also contribute to developing self-efficacy in students. When a task has been successfully completed, the student will likely have more confidence in tackling a more complex or challenging problem the next time around. A safe, healthy and nurturing environment equally contributes to the development of confident, independent and autonomous learners. One might think of a kind of emotional scaffolding

I doubt anyone would question the pedagogical value of scaffolding. But let’s go back to Vygotsky for a moment. Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). 

Recent analysis of Vygotsky’s work suggests that, as important a pedagogical tool as scaffolding may be, we should not oversimplify its relationship to the zone of proximal development. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not synonymous. Scaffolding is about the support one puts in place to guide learners towards the completion of a task or the acquisition of a skill. It is, as Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy argues, task-specific. One might also argue that it is unidirectional whereas, ideally, working with students in their zone of proximal development is multidirectional. It is about co-constructing knowledge.

“The concept of scaffolding is generally considered as a teacher-initiated, directive instructional strategy which conflicts with the initial [Vygotskian] understanding of teaching as inter-action of the teacher and students to build new knowledge together.(Margolis, 2020, p. 20)

Vygotsky was interested in cognitive development within a social and cultural context. Like Jerome Bruner, his approach represents a form of social constructivism. The quality of social interactions, the culture of the classroom, and the overall environment are as important as scaffolded pedagogical strategies in supporting students as they practice new skills. As Dixon-Krauss (1996) put it so well: “From a Vygotskian perspective, the teacher’s role is mediating the child’s learning activity as they share knowledge through social interaction” (p.18). 

Things to consider:

  • Are my students simultaneously guided and challenged?
  • Do my students demonstrate self-confidence in attempting a new learning goal? 

Useful Resources

Suggested Reading

  • Bandura, A., Carré, P., Lecomte, J., & Bandura, A. (2019). Auto-efficacité: Comment le sentiment d'efficacité personnelle influence notre qualité de vie. De Boeck supérieur.
  • Brown, A. L., & Palincsar, A. S. (1985). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension strategies: A natural history of one program for enhancing learning. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Eun, B. (2017). The zone of proximal development as an overarching concept: A framework for synthesizing Vygotsky’s theories. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(1), 18-30. doi:10.1080/00131857.2017.1421941
  • Haith, M. M., & Benson, J. B. (2020). Encyclopedia of infant and early childhood development. Elsevier, Academic Press.
  • Margolis, A. (2020). Zone of Proximal Development, Scaffolding and Teaching Practice. Cultural-Historical Psychology Культурно-историческая психология, 16(3), 15-26. doi:10.17759/chp.2020160303
  • Park, M., Tiwari, A., & Neumann, J. W. (2019). Emotional scaffolding in early childhood education. Educational Studies, 46(5), 570-589. doi:10.1080/03055698.2019.1620692
  • Smagorinsky, P. (2018). Deconflating the ZPD and instructional scaffolding: Retranslating and reconceiving the zone of proximal development as the zone of next development. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 16, 70-75. doi:10.1016/j.lcsi.2017.10.009
  • Vygotskij, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.
  • Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The Role Of Tutoring In Problem Solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89-100. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1976.tb00381.x
  • Xi, J., & Lantolf, J. P. (2020). Scaffolding and the zone of proximal development: A problematic relationship. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 51(1), 25-48. doi:10.1111/jtsb.12260
  • Zone of Proximal Development. (n.d.). Retrieved from