Psychological Foundations of Teaching and Learning

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Association among constructivist approach to learning, scaffolding and zone of proximal development.


Constructivist approach is becoming more popular in describing both the process of learning and teaching, it influences new trends in design and delivery of many areas of the curriculum. The approach suggests students to develop their own ideas not reproduce others' ideas. Teacher provides scaffold to help students construct their own understanding within the zone of proximal development.

In this paper, the definition of concepts will first be given followed by the relationships among concepts, after that, the importance of quality of learning will be explained. Then, the importance of relationship of concepts in connection to student teaching and learning and strategies for teaching will be discussed. Finally, the difficulties in applying concepts and conclusion will be provided.

Definitions of Concepts

Constructivism is a theory of learning suggesting that learners create their own knowledge of the topics they study rather than receiving that knowledge as transmitted to them by some other source (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). According to constructivist learning theory, the four aspects of constructivist lessons include: learners construct their own meaning, new learning builds on prior knowledge, learning is enhanced by social interaction and meaningful learning develops through "authentic" tasks (Good & Brophy, 2003).

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vgotsky, 1978).

Scaffolding is assistance that helps children complete tasks they cannot complete independently (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005; D. Wood, Bruner, & Rossm 1976). Some types of instructional scaffolding include modeling, questions, prompts and cues.

Relationships among constructivist approach to learning, scaffolding and zone of proximal development

There are two basic versions of constructivist approach: cognitive and social constructivism, which were respectively developed by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Cognitive constructivism focuses on individual, internal construction of knowledge (Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996; Meter & Stevens, 2000; Nuthall, 1999a), while social constructivism suggests that learners first construct knowledge in a social context and then individually internalize it (Vygotsky, 1978).

The concept of scaffolding is closely related to the zone of proximal development (ZPD), according to Vygotsky (1978), students' problem solving skills of tasks are in three categories: (a) can perform independently (b) cannot perform even with help (c) can perform with help.

The task that students "can perform with help" lies in the most productive zone for learning, this zone is called zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD can be thought of as a "construction zone" where by adults or more competent peers giving the right amount of assistance could help students to complete the task successfully, this kind of adult assistance is called scaffolding. In order to implement assisted learning within the ZPD, teachers have to offer just the right amount of help as students try to bridge the gap between what they already know with the intended learning outcome.

Scaffolding and ZPD are important concepts for social constructivism. In classroom practice, constructivist learning involves interactions between teacher and students or among the students themselves. When students work on a task, teacher provide scaffold by guiding them in the appropriate direction within their zone of proximal development.

The importance of qualify of learning and scaffolding to student, teacher and education

Learning is not just about how much is learned (memorize), but the quality of what is learned (understood), which means the purpose of learning is for a student to construct his or her own meaning, not just memorize the "right" answers and reproduce someone else's meaning.

Teacher facilitates students' construction of understanding by providing educational scaffold. An educational scaffold such as cues, questions, coach "provides temporary support as students work to bridge the gap between what they already know or can do and the intended instructional outcome. As children demonstrate increasing awareness of a problem situation, the adult gradually relinquishes the supportive role and eventually turns over full responsibility of the learning experience to the child" (George, 2010).

Constructivist theory can be incorporated into the curriculum, and advocate that teachers create environments in which children can construct their own understandings (Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde, 1993).

The importance of the relationships of concepts in connection to student teaching and learning

Constructivist approach to learning promotes critical thinking and creates motivated and independent learners. Learning occurs as students are actively involved in the process of knowledge construction, instead of passively receiving information.

The importance of the relationships of concepts in connection to student teaching and learning can be illustrate by considering the four aspects of constructivist lessons according to Good and Brophy (2003):

Learners construct their own meaning

Students do not passively receive knowledge but actively construct their own knowledge; teachers have to facilitate students' constructions of knowledge using social interactions by providing scaffolds.

New learning builds on prior knowledge

Students develop new knowledge based on their experience of the world, in making an effort to make sense of information; students must make connections between old knowledge and new information (Cooperstein, 2004). Teachers have to adjust the instructional scaffold depending on students' prior knowledge and current interest.

Learning is enhanced by social interaction

The constructivist process works best in social settings as students have the opportunity to compare and share their ideas with others, as well as to learn from others. Teachers have to organize small group activities, discussions within the entire class (Cooperstein, 2004).

Meaningful learning develops through "authentic" tasks

Activities are chosen to simulate those that will be encountered in real life or in an assignment (Cooperstein, 2004). Providing authentic tasks such as field trips allows students a better grasp of concepts and ideas in a real-world context.

Some effective strategies for teaching in relations with concepts

Constructivist learning is based on the principle of students' discovery.

The role of teacher is not to "tell" the concept but to facilitate that discovery. Therefore, designing activities that allow students to discover themselves is important.

A simple example is illustrated to explain how to shape students' discovery, the focus is to allow students to discover "internet will not always provide the best answer to all questions or that there may be better sources of information?

To lead students to this latter discovery, in our lessons, we pose a problem at the beginning of the session and allow students to go wherever they want for information. When students begin to realize that the Internet will not solve the problem, we direct them to an appropriate database, such as library. Students discover that maybe Internet is not always the "best place to go" for certain information. And we have led students from where they are to where we want them to be (Cooperstein, 2004).

In constructivist learning, teacher should offer a variety of constructivist methods for exploration and provide various approaches. Some are discussed in the followings:


A useful form of scaffolding is to model the practices we want our students to adopt (Wilson, 2004). In mathematics lesson, teacher would explain and model the mathematical reasoning, then stimulate students to engage themselves, for example the teacher demonstrate and verbalize solving equations of 4x + 2 = 10 on the blackboard with detailed steps and explanation, then ask students to solve another similar equation.

Asking questions

By asking questions, teacher can check students' level of prior knowledge and understanding, and also assists students to construct their own meaning. In social studies lesson, teacher would often ask questions that focus on awareness rather than content to make students engage more interactively, for example the teacher would ask "What is your favourite Chinese customs? Why?" and "What is your perception on traditional Chinese customs?"

Using Collaboration

Collaboration enables learner to develop their own plans and understandings through joint effort and have the opportunity to come to new understanding through the give-and-take of interaction, argument and discussion (Vygotsky, 1978). Students understand and learn point of view other than their own. In English lesson, the teacher gives an oral assignment to the class, and select some students do presentation to the whole class, and others respond and provide feedback. If there were some confusion, listeners would ask questions. Seeing how other students approaches the assignment presents a different perspective.


Beside teacher support, peer-scaffolding is also essential. Students are able to have social interaction, learn from others, and understand their own stories more fully, to care about others' interpretation of the world, and indentify and respond to other people's perspective (Fosnot, 1996). In liberal studies lesson, the teacher would organize group work exercises to encourage peer learning, for example, the teacher let students role-play on the issue of minimum wage, assign each group a specific role (e.g. Labour and Welfare Bureau officials , public) for discussion, then prepare group presentations on opinions and report in the class.

Using macro-task and long-term project

Macro-task and long-term project can provide an excellent framework to motivate students to work independently (Wilson, 2004). Some examples include producing a web-based magazine, preparing a mini-conference or forum, organizing a whole school event such as English day, drama performance. Students can get much more out of the activity if they are supported by good scaffolding strategies.

Difficulties in applying concepts

Using a constructivist approach, students are in the center of the learning process, teachers are challenged to provide teaching techniques that support students' construction of their understanding. Teachers need to make the concepts and phenomena interesting and important to the students (Julyan & Duckworth, 1996; Schank, 1997).

It would be difficult for a teacher to support large groups of students as some students are not used to managing their own learning, they rely on teachers, teachers should make sure that just enough help and guidance is provided, but not too much.


In conclusion, constructivist approach of learning emphasizes on the learning of students within their zone of proximal development that facilitated by teachers' scaffolding.

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