The child is an active seeker of knowledge and needs to be provided with direct, meaningful and practical experiences in an environment which provides enriching opportunities to explore new knowledge and reflect upon new findings. This poses responsibility on the educators in knowing each and every child well and individually guiding them in the learning process. Bruner and Vygotsky both left an indelible mark on the development of early childhood learning theory and gave an enormous contribution to the understanding of the educational learning process. These theories embrace and complement each other leading us to come up with meaningful practical strategies to be used in the early classroom. Bruner and Vygotsky stress the importance of recognizing the actual potential of the child because only in knowing where the child's level of knowledge stands, the educator can aim for future development and hence providing the child with appropriate tools, challenge and support needed in order to move thinking forward. They suggest that children learn best through discovery, problem solving and enquiry. Children need to be provided with some responsibility and choices to make for their own but also allowing them to make errors.
Lev Vygotsky proposed a socio-cultural theory based on the active interaction between an individual and the surrounding social and cultural forces. One of the key notions of his work is that of scaffolding, although this actual term was never used by Vygotsky, but he did mention all the things which constitute and come to terms with this notion. This is in fact where the two theories meet since scaffolding was introduced in the 1950's by the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. Bruner's idea of scaffolding is parallel to Vygotsky's work. They were particularly interested in the thinking skills and focused their study not on what the children achieved but on how they went about it. They believe that the crucial aspect for learning is in matching the learner's development level followed by appropriate instruction which moves the child beyond what he can achieve alone.
Scaffolding plays a crucial role in the development of the child's psychological processes because it allows thinking to be more abstract, flexible and independent. This involves the breaking down of knowledge into smaller stages of learning and provided the necessary guide and opportunities the child can move to a more advanced stage; either upward or sideward. However this can only be effective, provided that the educator does not alter the difficulty of the task but only scaffolds in order for the child to complete the task. Therefore a scaffold is a temporary framework put up to support the child and taken away when the child enquires control over task. In other words it is a metaphor to describe assistance to support the learning experience. This takes place though interaction between an adult and a child which enables him/her to do something beyond his capabilities. The type and amount of support must be changed as needed since the child would need less assistance with increasing understanding and control of tasks. In fact Vygotsky (1987) states that, "What the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow" (as citied in Lipscomb, Swanson & West, 2004). Scaffolding offers other benefits including; nurturing of cognitive development and helps in language learning, building of story compositions and in reading comprehension. Moreover, Bruner (1977) embarrasses Vygotsky work by stating (as citied in Bruce, 1997, p.52):
Mastery of the fundamental ideas of a field involves not only the grasping of general principles, but also the development of an attitude towards learning and enquiry, towards guessing and hunches, towards the possibility of solving problems on one's own...To instill such attitudes by teaching requires more than the mere presentation of fundamental ideas.
Thus implying that children must be diagnosed and assessed about their level of knowledge and act accordingly. However, Bruner (1977) continues by explaining that this doesn't involve simply assessing the child and matching it to the appropriate curriculum content but it involves knowledge of how the child actually views the world and acting accordingly through scaffolding. Moreover, Bruner (1977) builds on this by stating (as citied in Bruce, 1997, p.52):
...scaffolding the task in a way that assures that only those parts of the task within the child's reach are left unresolved and knowing what elements of the solution the child will recognize though he cannot perform them. So too with language acquisition, as in all forms of assisted learning, it depends massively upon participation in a dialogue carefully stabilized by the adult partner.
Therefore the educator must also know what the child is able to understand but cannot perform if not aided. This is so since, provided the appropriate environment, understanding precedes the ability to perform.
In line with scaffolding is Lev Vygotsky's (1978) idea of the zone of proximal development. In his study he was particularly interested in cognitive development and came up with two main principles; the more knowledgeable other (MKO) and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The MKO refers to someone or something that has more experience and knowledge on a particular task, process or concept in order to guide the child through the learning process. This concept of MKO is related to the ZPD, where together they form the basis of the scaffolding. The ZPD is the gap between what the child can do on his own and what he is not capable to do. Vygotsky (1978) defines (as citied in Galloway, 2001) the ZPD as "the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development with more capable peers." He believed that, provided the child is given the appropriate scaffold, when a child is at the ZPD s/he will be able to achieve that task. In other words when the MKO supports the child, s/he would then be able to bridge this gap. Once the child is able to master a task on his own we say that the ZPD has moved to a higher level. Therefore ZPD is always changing and expanding as the child gains more knowledge.
Vygotsky's work puts forward the implication that educators should focus on what the child actually knows and not what s/he doesn't know. This would enable the educator to provide the appropriate support needed to help the child develop thinking skills. Moreover, Vygotsky asserts that the most successful experience the child gets is from collaboration with a more experienced partner who knows when to leave the child to explore on his own and when to intervene. E.g. A child playing on his own with a dolls house must be left alone in talking and telling himself a story. But then the child will definitely need help when later on he would try to put the story in writing.
Although Bruner's and Vygotsky's works are very much in line they do differ a little which makes them more effective because they do complement each other. This is so since Vygotsky only spoke about going up the steps of knowledge in a forward manner; using the scaffolding method in order to step into the ZPD and becoming more an independent learner. Bruner's theory overlaps Vygotsky's by bringing in a concept, which Vygotsky fails to take into consideration; that children can in fact forget something they have already learned and so they would be unable to further their level of knowledge unless they are led to revisit areas which were already covered in order to build on them. Here Bruner's notion of spiral curriculum comes in, which is very much in line with the scaffolding principles.
Bruner (1966) states that (as citied in Smith, 2002):
To instruct someone is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather, it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We teach not to produce little living libraries on the subject, but rather to get a student to think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as a historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-setting. Knowing is a process not a product.
In his studies Bruner showed great interest in cognitive development; in learning how to learn and also focused on the form of how education must be. In the process he also brought together the world's leading educationalists to help him come up with a meaningful new curriculum. In 1960 he published his new ideas and approaches in, 'The process of education'. In 1977 Brunner formulated the notion of spiral curriculum which is very useful for educators to understand what is appropriate and relevant to the child because the educator must start from what the child knows and what s/he needs to know and moving from the less to the more complex knowledge. He believes that children should learn and be guided to grasp the basic fundamental principles of subjects rather than just master facts. This new curriculum should revisit these basic ideas repeatedly until the child understand them fully and then building gradually upon them but still making connections with what was already covered. Learning therefore should go in cycles or as Bruner calls it; in spiral motion.
Bruner also suggests that this curriculum should be designed and built upon the children's natural thinking processes and thus presented with ideas which are not too far from the child's natural way of thinking. Moreover, he argued that (as citied in Bruce, 1997, p.37), "Learning should not only take you to somewhere; it should allow us later on to go further more easily" (1977). Children should be provided with knowledge which can be built and developed upon later on in the future and eventually come useful as adults. This brings about the idea that learning should serve the future; Bruner calls this the 'forward feed'. Bruner looks at childhood as a separate phase of life with its own needs and therefore there is the need to create links and prepare children for the future. The spiral curriculum helps the educators to match the child's current level of knowledge with the new knowledge which would come in handy in the future.
Bruner and Vygotsky gave a great contribution to the educational theory which has influenced a lot the way we teach. Different researchers, including Vygotsky and Bruner emphasis the fact that children should be exposed to direct physical experiences; example in letting children play with water in order to find out its properties and giving them the opportunity to relate this new experience with what they already know and providing the necessary support in order to help them extend their knowledge. Moreover children must also be encouraged to reflect for themselves upon their actions and findings; Bruner calls this 'incipient intentions' while Vygotsky refers to it as the 'ripening buds' (as citied in Bruce, 1997, p.50). Concrete activities help the children to facilitate the learning process because children learn best by doing. Bruner believes that children do not learn from copying but they do learn a lot from imitation and in recognizing different experience. Vygotsky on the other hand do believe children learn a lot from symbolic play using play props. Thus, making use of role play in class helps a lot the children because through role play the children would be pretending to be someone else by dressing up and moving into the role. However a group of children pretending to be role playing something; example of running a shoe shop, need an adult to keep them focused on the task throughout otherwise they deviate from what they are suppose to be doing. Degree of intervention may vary in relation to the context; being a difficult topic which the children know little about would require much more prompting.
A good example which involves the spiral curriculum in action is that of finger paintings because the children would be transforming color powder into colored sludge. Therefore through the spiral curriculum the educator can teach a very basic concept which should come in handy later on; transformation from a powdered material to solid which is in fact a concept central to the study of science and chemistry. Same thing can be applied in providing the children opportunities to learn sound by using just a piece of string and plastic cups and in so doing letting them discover the world and getting new knowledge which will help them later on; e.g. In getting the notion of sound waves. Through play children can also learn some other basic principles of physics such as force, mass, friction and momentum by actually experiencing them themselves. Later on, these same principles would be revisited progressively in more complex forms.
Very recently we saw a significant progression in the teaching of primary mathematics by the introduction of the 'Abacus' in our primary schools. Abacus is really about Bruner's concept of spiral curriculum because it gives space for revising topics which help the children to recall and go back to what was already covered and so give them the opportunity to build on it and thus learn a new concept. The concept of revision is indeed very important since children do forget a lot and so they would need to revisit important concepts over and over again. They also need a lot of contextualizing because only through concrete experiences can the children be able to understand and remember. Apart catering for the fact that children are liable to forget, Abacus also helps the children in scaffolding the new concepts and providing them with more practical activities. These contribute in providing the students an effective experience since it helps in organizing activities which create links in the child's developing structure by providing knowledge in a meaningful context. There are also activities in which children need to work together either in pairs or in small groups where children would need to discuss and share their work which goes in line with Vygotsky's theory.
Children learn a lot through discovery and problem solving and so, providing children with a mystery embedded in a story would really encourage the children in asking questions, discovering clues and developing reasoning skills; example of this is presenting the children a story of a suspected murder and they have to discover this mystery. Children should also be given opportunities for initiative thinking, by providing them time for guessing and then try it out and see for themselves whether their guesses were right. This also requires children to hypothesize, ask question and discuss areas of enquiry.
These theories help us to understand more about how children learn and how the educators should go about teaching new knowledge and providing them with enriching practical opportunities in a supportive setting. Even though the development of learning in Vygotsky's theory is quite a linear one while in Brunner's it is spiral the teacher can still embrace these two theories together since one complements and builds on the other. As a future primary teacher I will try to amalgamate together these two theories so that my students benefit from the best learning experience I can offer.