Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Vygotsky: Scaffolding learning

I've been reading How Children Learn at Home by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison this week. It's the book that the lovely librarian gave me. Chapter 3 reviews some prominent educational theories before explaining how none of these really explain how children learn in unschooling - or informal learning - situations.

When I was a teacher, I did a professional development course on TESL, and the educational theories of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) were drawn upon a lot, although I don't recal his name ever being mentioned. I have used a lot of what I learnt in that PD course in my home teaching in many academic areas. So I decided to dig out one of my text books from my Graduate Diploma of Education, and another (far slimmer) volume from the professional development course, and read up on Vygotsky. For your edification (with my comments and reflections in square brackets):

From Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning McInerney & McInerney (1994) pp 99, 101-104:

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is defined as the area that lies between existing knowledge or skill and the potential level of development of that knowledge or skill. Learning is thought to only occur within this zone. [If something is easy, it has already been learnt, however, it may be being mastered. If something is too difficult, it cannot be learnt, even through a leap of insight.]

In order to allow the student to learn effectively, teachers should:
1. Establish a level of difficulty in each task which is challenging but not impossible for the student.
2. Provide assistance to the student to perform the task. This is called scaffolded instruction. The teacher gives guidance and assistance, collaborating with the student as they practice the task. There should be a clear sense of the intended outcome of the student's performance. Less help is given as the child improves in ability and learns to achieve the task on their own.
3. Evaluate the child's ability to determine if they can independently achieve the task.

Learning should be holistic. If tasks are broken into skills and subskills which are too small, meaningfulness will be lost [presumably with a resultant loss of motivation and/or success].

[For example, in learning to read, it is better to practise reading words and sentences as part of longer, meaningful texts, rather than repetitively reviewing either unrelated lists of words or a series of flash cards. So use Readers as soon as this is practicable in phonics-led instruction. Obviously, given that the English writing system relates graphemes to phonemes, this needs to be taught initially - including digraphs (such as th and ck), but there is no value in practicing reading stand-alone syllables (la, ba, fa) or focussing too heavily on blends (str, cl) where they do not add meaning (compare with ing, ed).]

Teachers are seen as mediating learning. Teachers and students interact in social contexts, with the teacher providing explicit explanation in the language of learning so that students can be aware of and in greater control of their learning.

[For example, in teaching writing, talk about the shapes of letters and the direction of the pen stroke and explain clearly the order used in writing each letter, rather than merely showing them the letter and expecting them to work it out themselves without this instruction.

Explain vocabulary words as they arise in context, for example through reading aloud texts which are above the child's independent reading level. Explain grammatical concepts and discuss correct punctuation in context, for example judiciously selected passages for copywork and dictation.

Talk to the kids. When they ask questions, follow them up as far as they are interested. Provide opportunities for them to discuss ideas which they have had explained once, so that they may understand more fully. For example, encourage them in play activities based on what they have heard or read about - acting out a skit of Paul's experiences on the road to Damascus & in Damascus with Ananias, and building a whaling boat & several different whales out of blocks are both examples from our educational activities this year.]

Learning activities should be structured, with increasing challenges. [Doing learned tasks independently will allow the student to master that particular skill but they need to be continually exposed to new situations and knowledge in order to remain in their ZPD and continue to learn.]

[For example, in mathematics, once the student can complete one-digit addition independently, the teacher should move them on to two-digit addition and one-digit subtraction etc. This allows the student to practice the learned skill which they rely on in learning the new skills but expands their challenge.]

Good teaching creates learning processes which lead to development. This contrasts with the Piagetian theory which says that cognitive development is requisite for learning.

There is an emphasis on language as a major means by which cognitive development (ie, the increasing ability to think) occurs. Language remains important throughout life for higher mental processes such as planning, evaluating, remembering and reasoning.

Private speech or self-talk is seen as a sign that the learner is in the process of internalising the ability/knowledge. As they talk aloud they are not speaking to others about what they are doing, rather they are talking themself through the activity as they have been taught, in the place of the teacher's assistance.

[In the light of this, the use of Charlotte Mason's technique for using relatively sophisticated "living books" as models for the student's narration may not give the student enough assistance and explanation within their ZPD - the texts chosen to read from might be too far above the child's ZPD and thus care needs to be taken in choosing texts which are not only "living" (truthful, fascinating, eloquent) but also understandable and at a level which is able to be imitated by the student. Providing a list of "important words to listen/look for as you read" before a text is presented might help bring a text into the child's ZPD.]

Deautomatisation of performance - aka becoming "rusty" - leads to the need for the use of private speech again until mastery is achieved once more.

Vygotsky's theories resonate well with me, although I cannot say I completely accept the holistic approach to teaching. However, scaffolding is a techniques which I have used to good effect, and I will explain this further in another post.

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Angela said...

Great post- I am going to print this off and read it more in detail. You have some great stuff here. I really appreciate your thoughts on my daughters 8th grade reading list, and I am going to remove a couple of the titles per your recommendation! There is so much great stuff out there, that I don't want here reading negative themes. I haven't had a chance to read everything out there, so I rely heavily on good homeschoolers to help me out! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Sharon said...

You are most welcome Anglela - I am reading many of the books in my reading list (see my sidebar) not only for my own enjoyment and edification but also so that I can make these sorts of decisions for my own children's later reading. I am very glad I was encouraged by a friend to do this very advance preparation for the middle and high school years. I have at least five years before my eldest is "logic stage" I should think, so I have some time up my sleeve to prepare wisely. It's a better use of my time than comparing assorted maths and phonics programs, anyway!
~ Sharon

mom24 said...

This is a very informative post! It actually made me think as I read it, of my math program (rather than my phonics program although I've used these approaches there as well).

I appreciate that you are so well-read! One thing I have discovered since starting this hs journey is that I am stuck mentally where I left off - 12th grade (college was engineering not literature)! I have started making it a point to read more again in order to be better prepared to teach as the kids get older.
Great info!

Sharon said...

Er yes, Andrea, my university studies were in Science (BSc in Biology and Maths) and in Education (Grad Dip Ed). Nothing even remotely in literature - that's why my list of classics I'd like to read is so long!

~ Sharon