Rogoff, Matusov, and White (1996) argue that ‘coherent patterns of instructional practices are based on instructional models, and instructional models are based on theoretical perspectives on learning'. Recent research indicates that teachers usually hold implicit theories about teaching and learning that inform their planning and day-to-day decision making. Yet these theories are typically underarticulated, unrecognised, underspecified, and quite often inconsistent if not schizophrenic in their application. It is our contention that clearly stating and coming to understand one's theory (or theories) about teaching and learning can help us to develop a coherent instructional model and then to scrutinise, converse about, and adapt our teaching in ways that hold powerful benefits for teachers and students.
The kind of teaching that most typifies American middle and high school classrooms is that the teacher tells and the student listens, then the student tells (or regurgitates information on a written test) and the teacher evaluates. The knowledge is declarative, decontextualised, and inert (think of a classroom dominated by lecture). Knowledge is not personally constructed nor applied. More progressive teaching is seen when teachers model strategies and knowledge making in the context of task completion, and then students attempt to do the task the way the teacher did it. Vygotsky's notion of instruction would have teachers doing complex tasks in meaningful contexts with students helping as much as they can. Through repetitions of the task, students take on more and more of the responsibility, with the teacher helping as needed and naming the new strategies employed by the student. Eventually students do the task on their own. The learning here is directed by a teacher who models appropriate strategies for meeting particular purposes, guides students in their use of the strategies, and provides a meaningful and relevant context for using the strategies. Support, in the form of explicit teaching, occurs over time until students master the new strategies, and know how and when to use them.
In the learning-centred teaching process, the teacher first models a new strategy in the context of its use and students watch. As this is done, the teacher will talk through what the strategy is, when the strategy should be used, and how to go about using it. The next step on the continuum is for the teacher to engage in the task with the students helping out. The third step is for students to take over the task of using the strategy with the teacher helping and intervening as needed. Finally, the student independently uses the strategy and the teacher watches. If particular students are more advanced, they may skip ahead to a later point on the continuum. If, on the other hand, students experience difficulty using a strategy in a particular situation, the teacher may have to move back a step by providing help, or taking over the task and asking students to help.
There is clearly a need for this kind of active and sustained support for improving reading through the middle and high school years. The time is right for these Vygotskian notions of guiding reading to be widely adopted in our schools. The learning-centred teaching process that we are arguing for requires Explicit Teaching.
Models of teaching and learning
What Is Learned Must Be Taught
An important argument in educational practice today centres on the debate of whether learning can proceed naturally and without much intervention or whether what is learned must be taught. While we agree that creating an environment in which kids will naturally grow and learn is attractive, both Hillocks (1999) and Vygotsky would maintain that teachers who believe or enact only this vision are letting themselves off the hook. Both argue that anything that is learned must be actively taught.
We make thousands of teaching decisions a day and all the decisions we make are theoretical, based on what we value, on what we think we are doing or should be doing, and on what we think will work toward those purposes. We want our decisions to work to support learning for all of our kids, even though some didn't do the reading, some did it and have no clue, some are five chapters ahead, and all are at widely different skill levels. What can we do so that our teaching is effective for all of our students in ways that work and make sense to us and to the kids? How can we teach so they can understand the purpose and use of what we do together in class, so they can all develop new abilities built on the skills they already possess, and so they can understand a higher purpose, pattern, and sense to classroom work?
George Hillocks maintains that teachers should and can possess specialised knowledge of students, of particular content and tasks, and of how to represent and teach this knowledge. Hillocks argues that ‘teaching is a transitive verb’ and that it ‘takes both a direct and an indirect object’ (1995). In other words, when we teach, we teach something to somebody. We need to know both our subject and student. We need to know how to teach in general, and in particular situations with the particular skills called for in that situation or with that text.
Shulman (1987) argues that there is a knowledge base for teaching and that it includes the following:
We'd include as ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ what we as teachers know about our theoretical orientations toward learning, toward reading, toward literature, and the like. When we know these things, then theory allows practices to stem in a wide-awake way from an articulate and unified set of principles. These principles can then lead us to scrutinise our teaching and to up the ante on it, pushing us forward to more powerful teaching.
The Essential Vygotsky: A Theoretical Perspective
Zones of Development
Perhaps Vygotsky’s most influential ideas are those related to zones of development. What a child can do alone and unassisted is a task that lies in what Vygotsky calls the zone of actual development (ZAD). When a teacher assigns a task and the students are able to do it, the task is within the ZAD. They have already been taught and have mastered the skills involved in that task. I remember many times in my own teaching career when I made such an assignment and exulted at my teaching prowess when the most excellent projects were submitted. Vygotsky wouldn't have been so sanguine. He would say that the kids could already do what I asked them to do, and I had taught them nothing.
The place where instruction and learning can take place is the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Learning occurs in this cognitive region, which lies just beyond what the child can do alone. Anything that the child can learn with the assistance and support of a teacher, peers, and the instructional environment is said to lie within the ZPD. A child's new capacities can only be developed in the ZPD through collaboration in actual, concrete, situated activities with an adult or more capable peer. With enough assisted practice, the child internalises the strategies and language for completing this task, which then becomes part of the child's psychology and personal problem-solving repertoire. When this is achieved, the strategy then enters the student's zone of actual development, because she is now able to successfully complete the task alone and without help and to apply this knowledge to new situations she may encounter.
Of course, there are assignments and tasks that lie beyond the ZPD, and even with expert assistance the student is incapable of completing the task. I have unwittingly given many assignments and assigned many books during my career that were beyond the ZPD of most of my students. Such assignments, no matter what the curriculum might proclaim, are acts of hopelessness that lead to frustration. In fact, such texts are designated by Analytical and Informal Reading Inventories to be at the student's frustrational reading level. If you've taught books that are at many of your students’ frustrational level, then you know that teaching them lies in the teacher's frustrational level as well!
Texts at the independent level are those the student can read alone (and are therefore in the ZAD). Texts at the instructional level are those that students can read with help, and through which students will learn new content and new procedures of reading (because the demands of reading that book lie in the ZPD – they can be learned with the appropriate assistance). These are the kinds of texts students need to be reading. They must be carefully chosen and matched to students, and they must be accompanied with instructional assistance for developing strategies of reading. It is important to remember that the difficulty of a particular text depends on many factors: the student's purpose for reading, motivation, background knowledge, how distant the content and ideas are from kids’ experience, the vocabulary, the inference load (the amount and kind of inferences required for understanding), student familiarity with the genre, the genre expectations and the strategies that are required to comprehend it, understanding of the author's purpose and so forth. Teaching can lead development when students are able to be successful with support. Teaching of tasks that cannot be successfully completed with assistance lie outside the ZPD.
Students develop new cognitive abilities when a teacher leads them through task-oriented interactions. Depending on various factors, a teacher will lend various levels of assistance over various iterations of task completion. The goal is to allow the students to do as much as they can on their own, and then to intervene and provide assistance when it is needed so that the task can be successfully completed. Vygotsky stressed that students need to engage in challenging tasks that they can successfully complete with appropriate help. Happily, Vygotsky points out that teaching in such a way develops the teacher just as attentive parenting matures the parent.
A metaphor that has been used to describe this kind of teaching is ‘scaffolding’. The student is seen as constructing an edifice that represents her cognitive abilities. The construction starts from the ground up, on the foundation of what is already known and can be done. The new is built on top of the known.
The teacher has to provide this scaffold to support the construction, which is proceeding from the ground into the atmosphere of the previously unknown. The scaffold is the environment the teacher creates, the instructional support, and the processes and language that are lent to the student in the context of approaching a task and developing the abilities to meet it.
Scaffolding must begin from what is near to the student's experience and build to what is further from their experience. Likewise, at the beginning of a new task, the scaffolding should be concrete, external, and visible. Vygotskian theory shows that learning proceeds from the concrete to the abstract. This is why math skills are learned from manipulatives, and fractions from pies and graphs. Eventually these concrete and external models can be internalised and used for abstract thought. One of the problems with reading is that the processes are internal, hidden, and abstract. There are many strategies (protocols, drama and visualisation strategies, symbolic story representation) for making hidden processes external, visible, and available to students so that they can be scaffolded to use and master new strategies of reading.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to bring the previously unmastered processes of completing a task into the students’ ZAD so that they can do the task without help. Reaching this point requires lots of support and practice and is a significant learning accomplishment.
Vygotskian theorists stress that children need to engage in tasks with which they can be successful with the assistance provided. They also stress that the child needs to have strengths identified and built upon (in contrast with the deficit model of teaching, in which a student's weaknesses are identified and remediated), and requires individual attention from the teacher.
Context and situation are also essential and integral to all learning. So students need to be engaged in real everyday activities that have purpose and meaning. To quote Brown, Collins, and DuGuid (1989):
It is important that the teacher gradually releases responsibility to the student until the task can be completed independently.
Vygotsky wrote, ‘What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow’ (1934). He also noted that ‘instruction is good only when it proceeds ahead of development. It then awakens and rouses to life those functions which are in a state of maturing, which lie in the zone of proximal development. It is in this way that instruction plays an extremely important role in development’ (1956).
In this way, we would critique natural-language-learning classrooms, in which children are placed in nurturing environments where it is assumed they will naturally grow and bloom. Though we know that many workshop classrooms do provide expert assistance through mini lessons, and through a variety of peer interactions and projects that can provide peer and environmental assistance, we believe that such classrooms often fail to push students to learn how to engage strategically with new text structures, conventions of meaning making, and new ideas. (We are all speaking from personal experience, and are critiquing our own practice in workshop settings.) The teacher in such situations often fails to lend her full consciousness to students or to set appropriate challenges, simply encouraging and allowing students to pursue their own paths. We do not want our students to naturally unfold into what they were supposedly ‘predestined’ to be, or imagined to be predestined to be. We want them to develop the capacity and awareness to choose who they will be and what they will do.
‘When Work Is Play for Mortal Stakes’
It's worth mentioning that Vygotsky stressed the importance of playfulness and imaginary play to learning. In our own schools, there's an amazing split between teachers who believe that learning should be fun, and those who believe that learning should be hard work. Our interpretation of Vygotsky is that he would agree with both parties (though primarily with the first group): we think he'd maintain that teaching and learning should be play that does ‘WORK’, by which we mean that the learning will have an immediate application, function, and real-world use.
A Teaching Model based on Vygotsky
Hillocks draws heavily on the research on both student engagement and potential and argues that:
Models of Teaching and Learning: