Child's face  MyRead: strategies for reaching reading in the middle years
beliefs
who
what
how
explicit teaching
scaffolding
monitoring and assessment
classroom organisation
professional development
further readings
acknowledgements

 

Scaffolding Learning

Adapted from Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy by Jeffrey Wilhelm, Tanya Baker, and Julie Dube. Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Wilhem, Tanya Baker, and Julie Dube. Published by Heinemann, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc., New Hampshire, USA.

Can there be teaching if there is not some kind of definable learning?

What is the relationship of teaching and learning?

When and how is teaching most powerfully enacted?

And who or what is most responsible for learning:
the environment? the teacher? the learner?
or some larger notion of participating together in a community?

And what do our answers to these questions mean for how we should
organise education and teacher-student relationships?

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

 
One-Sided Models
Sociocultural Model
  Curriculum-centred Student-Centred Teaching/learning Centred
Historical Roots Skinner, Pavlov, Thorndike Piaget, Chomsky, Geselle, Rousseau Vygotsky, Rogoff, Bruner, Hillocks, Dewey: Child and Curriculum Experience and Education
Theoretical Orientation Behaviourism Progressivism
Cognitivism
Coconstructivism
Socioculturalism
How learning occurs Transmission of knowledge: Teaching is telling Acquisition of knowledge Transformation of participation
Implications for instruction Both teacher and student are passive; curriculum determines the sequence of timing of instruction. Students have biological limits that affect when and how they can learn; teachers must now ‘push’ students beyond the limits. Knowledge is a ‘natural’ product of development. All knowledge is socially and culturally constructed. What and how the student learns depends on what opportunities the teacher/parent provides. Learning is not ‘natural’ but depends on interactions with more expert others.
Student’s role ‘Empty vessel’ Active constructor Collaborative participant
Teacher’s role Transmit the curriculum Create the environment in which individual learner can develop in set stages-implies single and natural course Observe learners closely, as individuals and groups. Scaffold learning within the zone of proximal development, match individual and collective curricula to learners’ needs. Create inquiry environment.
Dominant instructional activities Teacher lectures; students memorise material for tests Student-selected reading, student-selected projects, discovery learning Teacher-guided participation in both small-and large-group work; recording and analysing individual student progress; explicit assistance to reach higher levels of competence
Who is responsible if student does not progress? The student: He can’t keep up with the curriculum sequence and pace of lessons or meet the demands of prescriptive school program. The student: He has a ‘developmental delay’, a disability, or is not ‘ready’ for the school’s program. Often, family or social conditions are at fault. The more capable others: They have not observed the learner closely, problem-solved the learner’s difficulty, matched instruction to the learner, made ‘informed’ decisions, or helped the learner ‘get ready’.

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?

Powerful Teaching

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:

  • knowledge of students
  • knowledge of the subject to be taught
  • general knowledge of teaching processes, management, and organisation that ‘transcend the subject matter’
  • 'pedagogical content knowledge’, which includes: curricular knowledge of ‘materials and programs'; knowledge of how to teach particular kinds of content; knowledge of educational contexts and situations; and knowledge of educational ends, purposes, and values.

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

When you assign a task and the students successfully complete it without help,
they could already do it. They have been taught nothing.

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!

Vygotsky viewed teaching as leading development instead of responding to it,
if teaching is in the ZPD.

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.

Learning always proceeds from the known to the new.
Good teaching will recognise and build on this connection.

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.

Students have a need to develop and exhibit competence. Teachers must assist them to develop competence as they engage in challenging tasks in which they can be successful.

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):

A meaningful learning context is crucial. Learning is purposeful and situated.

It is important that the teacher gradually releases responsibility to the student until the task can be completed independently.

Learners can only begin to learn within their individual zones of proximal development, current interests and present state of being. But humane teaching can develop new interests, new ways, of doing things, and new states of being.

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

Student Responsibility->
Adult-Then Joint-Responsibility->
Self-Responsibility
Zone of Actual Development
Zone of Proximal Development

What the student can do on her own unassisted Assistance provided by more capable others: teacher or peer or environment:classroom structures and activities Transition from other assistance to self-assistance Assistance provided by the self Internalisation,
automatisation
    SOCIAL SPEECH
•Adult uses language to model process
• Adult and student share language and activity
    INNER SPEECH
The student's silent, abbreviated dialogue that she carries on with self that is the essence of conscious mental activity
        PRIVATE SPEECH
student uses for herself language that adults use to regulate behaviour (self-control)
   
            Private speech internalised and transformed to inner verbal thought (self-regulation)

 

Hillocks draws heavily on the research on both student engagement and potential and argues that:

  1. The best learning is fun.
  2. Engaged learning is fun because it is challenging, relevant, and purposeful but is supported in a way that makes success possible.
  3. Almost all students can and will learn given supportive teaching and effective learning environments.

Models of Teaching and Learning:
Flowing from Theory

The Vygotskian-inspired, sociocultural-based, learning-centred model is so radically different from the two most dominant models of teaching and learning (teacher-centred and student-centred) that most people have never considered it. This is because this new model is two-sided and requires mutual effort and responsibility on the part of learners and teachers, whereas the dominant models are one-sided and place nearly complete responsibility for learning with the student. As a result, the two-sided model requires a completely different kind of classroom and definition of teaching – one that may not look at all like what we have all experienced during our own schooling.

Because the dominant models of teaching and learning in our culture are linear, one-sided models, it's been typical to consider students responsible for learning: in the curriculum/teacher-centred model the teacher is an adult who runs the show and transmits information to students, whose job it is to ‘get it.’ In this transmission model the teacher provides an information conduit to the student, who is solely responsible for receiving and later retrieving this data. This model is referred to variously as a teacher-centred, presentational, curriculum-centred, or an industrial model of education.

Others argue that education should be ‘student-run’. Proponents of this view often cite constructivist notions by arguing that learning is the province of learners, who must necessarily construct their own understandings. Knowledge is acquired by learners in the process of their self-initiated inquiries and personal investigations. Again, it is the student who is responsible. No one else can ‘do’ learning for them and their achievement of new knowledge requires active involvement and personal exploration. This progressive model is often seen in workshop types of settings in which teachers provide an environment full of opportunities and materials with which students may choose to engage. This model is often referred to as student-centred, participatory, exploratory, or natural-process learning.

An entirely different point of view is proposed by researchers, theorists, and teachers influenced by Vygotskian psychology, and to some degree by Bakhtinian notions of dialogism. Rogoff, Matusov, and White (1996) propose to call this a ‘community of learners’ model in that, as Vygotsky suggests, it involves both active learners and more expert partners, usually adults, who will provide leadership and assistance to the less skilled learners as they engage together in a community of practice. In this model, it is the teacher who is responsible for students’ learning, or their failure to learn.

Communities of practice attempt to create meaning and solve problems in a real context. Rogoff, Matusov, and White write that learning is not about ‘transmitting’ or ‘acquiring’ knowledge, but is about ‘transformation’, namely about transforming the nature of one's participation in a collaborative endeavour. As the learner's participation is transformed, for example, he becomes a more active and expert member of the community of practice, often moving from observer to participant to leader of collaborative activity. But the more expert partner's participation will also be transformed as she learns about new ways to teach and new ways to participate and how to change her roles relative to the changing roles of others. Everyone is learning and working together to achieve a common purpose that will be useful beyond the world of school.

The community of learners instructional model supersedes the pendulum entirely: it is not a compromise or a ‘balance’ of the adult-run and children-run models. Its theoretical notion is that learning is a process of transformation of participation in which both adults and children contribute support and direction in shared endeavours (Rogoff, Matusov, and White 1996, 389).

These authors and many others have argued forcefully that the sociocultural context in which learning occurs, and the way in which something is learned, are necessarily a part of the learning. Therefore, students learning according to different models would learn in different situations and in different ways. This would affect how they come to understand and participate with different aspects of how information is represented and used. So, each model results in learning of a very different kind.

Our goal is for students to develop a wide repertoire of reading strategies that they can independently deploy in a wide variety of situations with a wide variety of texts, and our ultimate purpose is that they use these strategies to participate democratically in their communities and cultures. We find that applying Vygotskian learning theory to our teaching is what best helps us to meet these goals.


Ways of Assisting Readers through Their Zones of Proximal development: Modes of Scaffolding

The figure below is available either as an Acrobat PDF (web readers: if you need the Acrobat reader, click here), as a larger screen-sized image, or as an A4 print-sized image.

scaffolding diagram


References

Brown, J., Collins, A., & DuGuid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.

Hillocks, G. (1995). Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hillocks, G. (1999). Ways of Thinking/Ways of Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rogoff. B., Matusov, B., and White, S. (1996). Models of Teaching and Learning: Participation in a Community of Learners. In D. Olson & N. Torrance (eds.), The Handbook of Cognition and Human Development. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 388-414.

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Educational Review, 15(2), 1-22.

Wilhelm, J., Baker, T. & Dube, J. (2001). Strategic Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language, trans. A. Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1956). Selected Psychological Investigations. Moscow: Izdstel’sto Pedagogical Academy. Nauk: SSR.

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