Zone of Proximal Development
Who’s in Charge Here? What is Dynamic Scaffolding
“…often scaffolding in schools means the ‘imposition’ of a structure on the student. Is a sheet of questions outlining steps on how to proceed on a science experiment effective scaffolding?”
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) may be defined as the zone in which we can accomplish a task with the assistance, or accompaniment, of a more knowledgeable other – a task that we could not handle alone. The student should ideally be engaged at the outside limit of competence.
Advancing one’s knowledge, by definition, requires that one operates in advance of one’s level of competence. One may conceive of the ZPD as being a zone just in advance of the student’s position of competence. It is in this zone where learning and development occur.
But this may be a wide zone – a large ‘depth of field’, if you like. The inner edge of the ZPD (close to total competence) is characterized by tasks that can be carried out with a minimum of support whereas at the outer edge of the ZPD a greater amount of scaffolding is required. A great deal of complexity is inherent in assuming control of ‘scaffolding’ within that zone. Is this possible, or best handled, by others?
Novice & Expert Learners
There are common behaviours that are characteristic of relative levels of expertise. Novice learners display approaches that are consistent across domains. So do expert learners. This theoretically allows for an easier determination of one’s position on this novice-expert continuum due to similarities of strategic approaches or behaviours. One may therefore be able to identify a ZPD just in advance of this position. For example, a novice may not think to generate a variety of possible solutions before embarking on one approach to a task, whereas a more expert student might, so one could afford opportunities for this generation of alternate strategies to occur. However, as the student gains expertise and moves up the continuum, the ZPD is always in advance. Therefore, it necessitates that the ‘cognitive partner’ provide ‘dynamic’ support or scaffolding. Not just the gradual quantitative reduction of support as the learner acquires more competence in a particular skill, but a qualitative shift because now new competencies become attainable with appropriate support. An ‘optimal mismatch’ needs to be maintained. This is quite a challenge.
Robbie Case developed a theory & technology of instruction that focused on analysis of novice-expert behaviours and procedures and the design of “successive stages for transforming the novices procedures into more expert-like ones” (Bereiter & Scardamalia). My own work on spelling acquisition was consistent with this work. It was determined that relative expertise in spelling could be acquired by identifying and supporting stages & procedures in between novice and expert. However, it is still questionable whether this determination and judgement of one’s position might not best be assigned to the student rather than the teacher or other. In this work on spelling acquisition, there was student involvement in the analysis of the progression of learning. I remember asking them to think they were holding a video camera just above themselves…that they were watching themselves. What do they see?
Who’s in Charge?
Is an outside individual able to determine the appropriate support to advance another’s expertise? With such complexity involved, even though there are general patterns among novices and experts, many of us believe that one should be proactive in one’s own construction of knowledge within the ZPD. The teacher often assumes responsibility for this learning process and I am suggesting that we turn over this responsibility to the student. This already occurs in many other settings and does not mean abandoning scaffolding.
Bruner (in Toohey) suggests in regard to parent-child interactions “…mothers most often see their role as supporting the child in achieving an intended outcome, entering only to assist or reciprocate or ‘scaffold’ the action.” Donald Graves (in Writing : Teachers & Children at Work, 1983 p.271) says that “scaffolding follows the contours of child growth”. Both Bruner and Graves identify that the child is in control while the adult remains sensitive and responsive.
However, often scaffolding in schools means the ‘imposition’ of a structure on the student. Is a sheet of questions outlining steps on how to proceed on a science experiment effective scaffolding? “Whose intentions are being honored” asks Searle (in Jordan, 1997)? “The adequacy of the metaphor implied by scaffolding hinges on the question of who is constructing the edifice.” (in Jordan, 1997)
Here is an example of a child in charge of the construction of new knowledge within the ZPD. This is a description of a parent’s support of a child who is learning to count to 100. The child can manage alone through each set of ones, but needs to be prompted at each ‘ten’.
Further on, perhaps at another session the adult may only have to shape her mouth like the initial sound of the tens number for the child to say it. It is in this way that an adult can collaborate in the ZPD. The adult initially needs to provide considerable scaffolding, but scaffolding is only a temporary building structure that is gradually reduced and withdrawn as the student constructs the knowledge and competence necessary to continue unaided. A cognitively sensitive, attuned adult allows the control of the ZPD to remain in the hands of the student. For example,
C:“Don’t tell me!!”
A:“Sorry, I didn’t know whether to help.”
C:“67..68..69..Don’t tell me…Don’t tell me…(pause)…Give me a hint..”
Here the adult has attuned to the ‘depth of field’ of the ZPD (on this task) and has allowed and encouraged control to remain with the student.
More Complex Problem Spaces
I recognize that the above examples illustrate the concepts with relatively simple learning tasks. The same holds, I believe, for more complex problem spaces. Much of my everyday work with students struggles in those spaces.