1: a temporary or movable platform for workers (as bricklayers, painters, or miners) to stand or sit on when working at a height above the floor or ground; a platform on which a criminal is executed (as by hanging or beheading); a platform at a height above ground or floor level
2: a supporting framework
Our baby daughter is learning how to walk. By herself, she can take about four to five steps before she topples over. For a few weeks now, though, she’s been whizzing around our apartment, supporting herself against furniture, walls, the occasional parent that stands nearby. Pretty much anything that can offer her some vertical support while she trains her balance.
She’s intuitively making use of scaffolding.
It’s a central concept in the socio-cultural theories of learning, most of which are influenced by the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s grand thing was the thought that whatever a person learns to do by herself, she first has to learn how to do with the help of others.
Vygotsky coined the term “Zone of Proximal Development” or ZPD for short, which is the level of skill where one can perform the task with help but not yet on their own. Scaffolding, then, is the social help coming from peers or teachers that enables the learner to perform the task.
Granted, our daughter is mainly using non-social scaffolds when she zooms past me, holding on to the couch, but when I’m holding her hand to support her, it’s a classic case of ZPD in action.
I started thinking about the concept on my way back from band practice last weekend. Whenever I get out of the house all alone, I indulge by listening to TED talks or other podcasts on my iPod. The one that got me thinking about the topic was the TED talk by Deb Roy about his research into how his infant son learned to talk.
He mentions an interesting finding during the talk. Immediately before a child learns a specific word, her caregivers start to use that word in very simple contexts, easing the child onto the level of being able to use the word. What that means is the caregivers appear to subconsciously detect when the child is getting proficient enough in her approximation of the word, and then they react to what they detect.
That’s one heck of a scaffolding system.
As a future teacher, scaffolding is a very interesting concept, not least because of the critical element of timing.
If you hold the hand of a baby learning to walk, and you don’t let go even when she could already perform the task herself, you are not scaffolding her. You are doing the baby a disservice.
If you are a teacher who hears pupils discussing amongst themselves while performing a task and offer uninvited answers, you’re not scaffolding them. You are doing them a disservice.
Scaffolding is all about listening and perception. Furthermore, it’s about allowing a certain amount of uncertainty from the learner. The fraction of a second that the baby stands up unassisted and sways back and forth is not necessarily a sign she is about to fall over. It might be her way of adjusting her balance and getting ready to take the next step.
Similarly, the question from the pupil and the hesitation might not signal that they are about to abandon the task. More often than not, it’s a way for them to think aloud, to activate the part of the mental network that contains the answer.
Besides, if you always keep supporting and scaffolding the learner, when will you ever know that they have passed the ZPD and are able to perform the task on their own?
Thank you for stopping by! There’ll be a short break in posting, as we’re heading off to beautiful Munich for the weekend to see our friends, but I’ll be back here, posting about the wonderful Central Europe insightings sooner than you think! And while you’re waiting, why not comment or subscribe? 🙂