Scaffolding in action

Trevor Cairney © 

The following is an extract from one of my books. It is part of Chapter 3 of  “Pathways to literacy” that deals with the relationship between the teacher, the student and texts.  The extract follows the introduction in which I have argued for the relationship between language, teaching and learning.

Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to literacy. London: Cassell, pp 34-40 



‘Apprenticeships’ in thinking, language and literacy


As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, one strong influence on my work has been the work of writers and researchers who have examined the relationship of language (and of course literacy) to education.  A second significant influence has been the work of Vygotsky (1978) and the development of this work by Rogoff (1990).

Rogoff (1990, p.7) uses the metaphor of “apprenticeship” to describe how children learn.  She suggests that children are apprentices in thinking:

….active in their  efforts to learn from observing and participating with peers and more skilled members of their society, developing skills to handle culturally defined problems with available tools, and building from these givens to construct new solutions within the context of sociocultural activity. 

Rogoff’s work in turn is based on the work of a number of psychologists whose theories are socially based (e.g. Vygotsky, Luria, Cole & Scribner and Wertsch).  Central to her concept of being apprenticed in thinking is the work of Vygotsky.

Vygotsky’s  (1978) theoretical work has two central concepts.  First, that human activity has a tool-like structure, and second, that it is embedded in a system of human relations.  He argued that these two major features defined the nature of human psychological processes.  His theory suggests that higher order processes like literacy can only be acquired through interaction with others, which at some later stage will begin to be carried out independently.

Central to Vygotsky’s assumption that learning moves from an initial form of guided learning to later independent learning, is his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development.  Vygotsky’s (1978) ideas challenge traditional notions of developmentally appropriate learning.  He proposed that there are in fact two developmental levels.  The first Vygotsky termed “actual development” and defined it as “the level of development of a child’s mental functions…. determined by independent problem solving” (p. 86).  In other words, what a child can do alone at a particular point in time.  The second, “potential development” was defined as that which a child can achieve if given the benefit of support during the task.  It is the ability to solve problems “under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86).

Vygotsky suggested that there is always a difference between these two forms of development and that this gap, the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) indicates the  functions “….that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation” (p.86).  It is the ZPD that is critical for learning and instruction.  He argued that learning creates the zone of proximal development; it “awakens a variety of internal development processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers.  Once these processes are internalized, they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement.” (p.90)

Rogoff (1990) points out that the ZPD is a dynamic region of sensitivity to learning the skills of culture, in which children develop through participation in problem solving with more experienced members of a group.  Cole (1985) in turn argues that within the ZPD culture and cognition create each other.

Vygotsky suggested that teaching geared to developmental levels that have already been achieved will be ineffective, and that “the only ‘good learning’ is that in advance of development” (p. 89).

But how is this learning fostered, and what is our role in it as teachers?  Bruner (1983; 1986) devised the concept of “scaffolding” to explain this process. In explaining “scaffolding” Bruner described the behaviour of a tutor helping three- and five-year-old children to build a pyramid out of interlocking wooden blocks.  Bruner concluded that the act of scaffolding as observed was a process whereby the teacher helped students by doing what the child could not do at first, and allowing students to slowly take over parts of the text construction process as they were able to do so.  The teacher controlled the focus of attention, demonstrated the task, segmented the task and so on.

However, some have criticized the way Bruner defines this concept (e.g. Harste, Woodward and Burke, 1984), suggesting that it places too much control in the hands of the teacher, who is seen as a manipulator and simplifier of the learning environment attempting to reduce language learning to a series of stimulus-response bonds.

While agreeing with these concerns, I am opposed to definitions that reduce the teacher’s role to that of a passive manipulator of the environment.  This stance implies  that students will ‘discover’ all there is to know by being ‘immersed’ in learning.  Such a viewpoint reduces the role of the teacher to that of participant with identical knowledge and status (something which is incorrect) within the classroom, and ignores the important functions that teachers need to perform as part of teaching (something which will be explored in greater detail in Chapter 4).

While I oppose the notion that teachers or peers should control the joint construction of someone else’s text, Bruner’s emphasis upon control may reflect the fact that he was reporting observations of an adult engaged in the construction of a pyramid.  This may explain the extent to which the adult assumed control.  The construction of a model provides an opportunity for another person to assume joint ownership for the task.  I would argue strongly that the same potential does not exist when talking about texts created by language users.  While two people may help each other to construct a text, each must ultimately make his/her own text, not simply create one that can be shared.

Within this book the term scaffolding is assumed to describe the behaviour of any person(s) designed to help a student engage in some aspect of learning beyond their “actual” level of development.

It would seem that Vygotsky’s (1978) work offers us more than a view of learning which restricts the teacher’s role to that of one who simply prods or prompts students to mimic the behaviour or meanings of another person.   As Rogoff (1990) reminds us, cognition and thinking are ‘broadly’ problem solving, and this in turn requires an active process of exploring, solving and remembering, rather than simply acquiring memories, precepts and skills.  And problem solving reflects human goals that involve other people.

Rogoff’s concept of guided participation is also useful to help explain how Vygotsky’s views on learning can be put into practice in classrooms.  This concept suggests that:

…..both guidance and participation in culturally valued activities are essential to children’s apprenticeship in thinking.  Guidance may be tacit or explicit, and participation may vary in the extent to which children or caregivers are responsible for its arrangement (1990, p. 8).

In Rogoff’s opinion guided participation involves children and others in a collaborative process of “building bridges” from children’s present understanding and skills in order to reach new understandings and skills.  This in turn requires “the arranging and structuring of children’s participation in activities” (1990, p. 8).

The relationship of Rogoff’s concept of guided participation to Vygostky’s work should be obvious.  Central to guided participation is Vygotsky’s concept of intersubjectivity .  This is the process humans engage in when collaborating.   It involves a sharing of focus and purpose between a child and another more skilled or knowledgable person.  This is essentially a process that involves cognitive, social and emotional exchange between participants in learning.

Of critical importance within this book is the way these concepts are applied in classrooms.  It is obvious that some teaching styles would not encourage the development of intersubjectivity, nor would they in any way demonstrate Rogoff’s notion of guided participation.  For example,  the various teaching scripts identified by Gutierrez (1993) which were discussed earlier in this chapter would seem to offer different potential for guided participation to occur and for intersubjectivity to develop.

Teachers who employ recitation scripts and who provide only limited opportunities for students to interact with and receive help from peers, would no doubt reduce dramatically the opportunities for guided participation to occur.

It would seem that Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, and Rogoff’s concept of guided participation, have great relevance to teachers who are concerned with helping students to acquire literacy.  What Rogoff’s work contributes is an emphasis on the active participation of learners in their own development.  As Rogoff (1990) points out:

Children seek, structure, and even demand the assistance of those around them in learning how to solve problems of all kinds.  They actively observe social activities, participating as they can (p. 16).

There is a complementary process involved where the teacher and peers help as the student attempts to learn beyond their actual level of development.  The role of other participants in this learning may involve the provision of new knowledge or strategies, but this should normally be in response to the student’s attempts to learn.  That is, the teacher or other students should not make be the ones who constantly set the learning agenda; rather, they should respond to the learners needs as he/she grapples with learning within their Zone of Proximal Development.

The teacher or peers assisting the learner may offer new knowledge or demonstrate strategies, but as Rogoff points out (1990), this need not be explicit or even didactic instruction, something which is in contrast to that stressed by Vygotsky (1978) and Bruner (1983).  Rather, while it may be explicit, it may also be indirect and at times non-verbal.  Rogoff, suggests that there need not be intentionality in communication between learners and their peers or the teacher.  In fact, she suggests that most of children’s lives in many (if not all) cultures involve interactions that are “organized to accomplish the task of the moment (1990, p.18).

The only qualifying comment I would want to add to Rogoff’s argument is that while this may well be true of the home and community, particularly for the young child, the world of schooling is characterized by a far higher level of explicit and didactic instruction than most educators would see as desirable.

In a nationally funded research project that aims to describe the literacy practices of the final year of primary school and the first year of secondary school, Cairney, Lowe and Sproats (1994), have found that a large proportion of classroom time is devoted to teacher talk of a didactic kind.  While this is not to suggest that Rogoff’s argument is incorrect, it would suggest that in many classrooms teachers are adopting teaching styles that are far more consistent with Gutierrez’s (1993) recitation script, than that characterized by a highly dynamic interactive learning context in which both the discourse and the knowledge were more frequently jointly constructed, that is, a responsive/collaborative script.  This in part relates to the way teachers use questioning.  This will discussed in greater detail in the next section of this chapter.

Teachers are more than simply manipulators and trainers.  The interactions between parents and their young children are frequently cited (e.g. Snow, 1983; Painter, 1986) as the ideal models for learning.  It is worth remembering that what is central to these interactions are a shared history, love, trust and concern for the child’s right to construct his/her own meanings.  As Bruner points out (1986, p.132), we need to enter into dialogue with a learner in such a way that “hints and props” are provided to move him/her through the zone of proximal development.  Learning is not about detached teachers taking control of learning away from students, it is about support, help and encouragement to reach new levels of understanding and skill.

The work of Vygotsky and Rogoff obviously has a number of implications for the teacher:

˚ Instruction and curriculum should be directed at a level just beyond the child’s current level of development.

˚ The teacher should construct learning environments which permit students to attempt tasks with the help and support of the teacher and other learners.  That is, create contexts for guided participation.

˚ Teachers have an important responsibility to observe the learning of students to determine their actual and potential levels of development, and to identify  their Zones of Proximal Development.

˚ Teachers must create learning environments which provide positive demonstrations of literacy.  Students need to observe other readers and writers using literacy in ways that are beyond the student’s level of actual development.

˚ Teachers should create classroom contexts which permit the teacher as well as peers to build bridges between class members’ present understanding to new understanding and skills.

˚ Classrooms environments should be places which permit intersubjectivity to develop.  Such contexts are probably best described as communities of learners, like that created by Susan (see Chapter 2).

˚ Teachers must beware of the tendency to always make decisions about what is significant for learners within their classrooms.  When teachers take total control of learning away from students, guided participation gives way to a new  form of direct instruction.   Bruner (1986, p.148) alludes to this issue when he asks:

Is the Zone of Proximal Development always a blessing?  May it not be the source of human vulnerability to persuasion………is higher ground better ground?   Whose higher ground?