Constructivism 3: Bruner and Scaffolding Lecture

Introduction

This chapter introduces a third theory based on Constructivism: Bruner's concept of scaffolding as a way of approaching learning and development. It explains the origins of Bruner's ideas in the observation of infants, and its connections with the theory of Vygotsky, and defines what scaffolding means. The chapter then shows how scaffolding applies to education in various contexts. Examples are provided to illustrate how the theory works out in practice. The strengths and limitations of this theory are explored, along with some discussion of the reasons why this theory has proved so popular in so many different contexts. There are prompts for reflection which focus on key points and help you to relate this material to your own knowledge and experience. This theory is very commonly used at all levels in education, and so the reflection sections are a very useful way of applying it to your own teaching and learning, and thinking about ways in which this theory could assist you in planning lessons and in teaching classes where there are likely to be learners who are at different stages of development and have different levels of ability.

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand and explain clearly what scaffolding means, using appropriate specialised terminology
  • understand and explain clearly how it relates to the earlier theories of Vygotsky
  • explain how this theory is applied to education
  • critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory
  • link this theory to educational practice

What is Bruner's scaffolding theory?

Jerome Bruner (1915-2016) was an American psychologist of Jewish heritage who had a long and illustrious career teaching at the universities of Harvard, Oxford and New York. Bruner was interested in the way children construct their view of the world by building new elements onto areas of knowledge that they have already gained. The first usage of the term 'scaffolding' is made in connection with very early childhood. As a psychologist interested in early child development, he observed mothers interacting with their infants and explained the role of the mother as follows: "In such instances, mothers most often see their role as supporting the child in achieving the intended outcome, entering only to assist or reciprocate or 'scaffold' the action" (Bruner, 1975, p. 12).

The metaphor of the scaffold is intended to be an active one. The key point to note here, is that the adult is responsive to the child, and the scaffolding is a reciprocal process, in which both parties are involved. Bruner's early observation relates to the period before language is developed, and it shows how the mother's engagement with the infant encourages babbling, and the formation of sounds that eventually will lead to words, and then full language ability (Schaffer and Kipp, 2014, p. 343). Bruner's thinking builds on Vygotsky's idea that children learn through social interaction, and especially through interactions with others who are at a higher developmental level and/or are more knowledgeable. In the previous chapter, we saw how Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development was used as a way of describing the interactive events which encourage learners to achieve new things with the help of others. Bruner focused on how exactly this more knowledgeable other imparts their greater knowledge and competence to a learner, and how the learner responds to this new knowledge, gradually developing more and more understanding, with the help of the more knowledgeable other.

In a later article (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976), the idea of scaffolding was further elaborated in connection with adult instruction of a child in an explicit learning context, either at home or at school. In this context, the adult provides scaffolding "that enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts" (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976, p. 90). An important part of this process is the learner's mental appreciation of what the task is, how it should be approached, what kind of steps should be taken, and in which order the steps should follow. In fact, this deeper understanding of what the task entails is more important for the child's development than the completion of the task itself. The child is not just learning how to do something, but how to think about something and plan his or her interaction with people, objects and ideas in relation to that task. This involves quite complex cognitive processes, such as paying attention to some aspects more than others, focusing on an end goal, eliminating elements of the child's thinking or behaviour that are irrelevant or unhelpful for task completion, and dealing with any setbacks that might occur due to inexperience or emotions like frustration, boredom, anxiety, etc.

The adult or more experienced person uses language to set out the goal and discuss it with the learner, ensuring that the learner understands what the aim of the activity is. A shared understanding is a necessary prerequisite for the scaffolding process to be effective, because this is the foundation upon which deeper learning is built. If the learner does not engage with the adult, or does not understand why the activity is taking place, and what outcome it is likely to have, then opportunities for the learner to contribute their own concept building and planning are lost, and the learner will just follow instructions in a reactive way. This can result in the immediate goal being achieved, but the deeper-level cognitive and perceptual changes may not necessarily have taken place in the mind of the learner. Ideally, then, the learner and the more knowledgeable other must develop a shared understanding of a particular task, and there should be dialogue between them, discussing what should be done, and how and why certain steps should be followed.

Reflection

Think back to your high school education. What was your favourite class? What was your least favourite class?

Can you identify the role that scaffolding played in each case? See if you can work out what your teachers did well in their scaffolding efforts, and what they did less well, and how they could have used scaffolding more effectively. Did you understand the tasks that were set? Did you have a shared goal with the teacher? If so, what exactly was that goal? If not, why not?

Reflect also on your own contribution to the learning process in these two cases. Write down how you felt about each class, and how these feelings affected your learning. Note any insights you have gained from this reflection that might be useful to you in your future career as a teacher.

Bruner's theory of scaffolding requires the adult to provide assistance that is carefully calibrated to the changing needs of the learner. A problem is set which involves both using knowledge that the learner already has and mastering some new material that the learner has not encountered before, or has not yet mastered in terms of knowledge and skills. The adult's role is to judge the kind of assistance that each learner needs, and then provide just enough assistance to help the learner move on to the next stage of the task. It is far better for the child to work things out for himself or herself, and so the adult should hold back and let the child try out his or her own ideas first. If the child has reached the limits of his or her own ideas, this is when the teacher adult intervenes with targeted assistance.

The adult's assistance can take different forms, including the following six specific types:

  • Recruiting the child's interest
  • Reducing some degrees of freedom
  • Maintaining goal orientation
  • Highlighting typical task features
  • Controlling frustration
  • Demonstrating idealised solution paths

There is no right or wrong way to order these types of assistance, and no fixed proportion of each: every situation is different and the adult will use his or her experience and frequent discussions with the child or children to work out what is required at any one moment.

Reflection

Imagine a you are a leader in a cub scout group. The boys (aged around nine years) are investigating insect life in a local area of wasteland and recording what they find. They can be quite boisterous at times, and they don't always pay close attention to instructions. The goal of the activity is to gain a badge in environmental conservation. The requirements for the badge include mastery of some basic science skills (observation and classification), some numeracy skills (counting what they find) and some literacy skills (writing the names of the insects and describing the habitat).

Sketch out a description of how you would go about scaffolding their learning by intervening to offer each of the six types of assistance mentioned above. This description can include assistance to prepare for the fieldwork, assistance during the fieldwork, and afterwards when the boys are writing up what they have found. What would you do to ensure that your assistance is properly calibrated to the needs of each child?

How does scaffolding apply to education?

Bruner's theory of scaffolding starts with the assumption that there is an asymmetrical relationship at the heart of learning. The parent, teacher or facilitator has more knowledge than learner and seeks to impart this knowledge through various strategies. Some of these strategies may be unconscious, since everyday conversations often produce situations where one person makes efforts to share knowledge with another person. This may involve explaining the meaning of unusual words, simplifying the language used, or demonstrating something through gestures and facial expressions. Anyone who lives or works with children will naturally develop skills in this area, simplifying their language, breaking down tasks, and explaining things as they go along.

In the field of education, however, scaffolding takes on a more formal meaning because it is linked with the need to ensure that learners progress towards officially defined learning goals. In a later book, (Bruner, 1986) there is more discussion of the role that the teacher plays when guiding learners through a new task. The context of a teacher helping children to construct a pyramid with interlocking bricks is described. The teacher was able to serve as a "vicarious consciousness" for the children (Bruner, 1986, p. 76). This term means "a temporary intellectual support which a teacher offers in order to draw the learner up towards a higher level of understanding … [it] appears to assume a prior understanding of the solution of the problem, or a conception of the ideal outcome of a task on the part of the person providing the 'scaffold'," (Fernandez, Wegerif, Mercer and Rojas-Drummond, 2001, p. 41). The teacher could make elements of her adult consciousness available to the children's more limited consciousness by controlling the focus of attention and turning the task into play. She maintained a narrative that explained what was happening, and she often dramatised elements of the task, showing very slowly and clearly how one step formed the basis for another. Her language was deliberately chosen to match the language that the children themselves used, and the narrative style was chosen to recall the sequential nature of a story. Bruner (1986, p. 75) notes that "she was the one with a monopoly on foresight" and it was her patient persistence that helped the child to envisage the task from beginning to end. Without the teacher's structured assistance, the child would not have known where to start, and could not have imagined a course of action that would lead to completion of the task. The child would simply have given up. Interestingly, when the task of teaching young children to build a pyramid was given to older children, they used very similar strategies, but with one important difference: the teacher gradually withdrew her support and encouraged the learner to take on more and more responsibility for the task, while the younger tutors did not let the learners do this. They continued to show the child what to do, even though the child had mastered many of the steps required.

Teaching by demonstration is a common strategy, especially in subjects like science, where technical competence is required. It is not the same as scaffolding, however, because it is controlled by the teacher according to the teacher's own fixed plan. Scaffolding has to adapt as the learner progresses, so that the learner can eventually complete the task unaided. Scaffolding is not just a matter of offering standardised help to learners as they are engaged in tasks and problem-solving. The role of the teacher or facilitator is crucial, and it must constantly adapt to the needs of the learner, so that the learner increasingly takes on more and more of the responsibility and the teacher gradually steps further and further into the background. Some learners will need much more help than others, and there will be variations in the type of help that they require because each learner is at a different stage of development, and has a different range of skills and knowledge that can be brought into play when carrying out a task.

Example

A student on a BA Nursing programme has to learn both theory and practice in a range of common procedures such as taking a patient's temperature and blood pressure, giving injections, and recording vital key data on a paper or digital system. Some of these tasks can be learned in the classroom, but some of them have to take place on a clinical placement.

New students will start with non-invasive tasks. They might take each other's temperature and blood-pressure, for example, and record the results. Learning how to give injections is more difficult. It might involve, first of all, learning about the theory relating to anatomy and the physical properties of arteries and veins, the different layers of skin and fat, etc. The student might then be encouraged to learn the technique of injection using an orange, in order to learn how to manipulate the syringe and apply the right amount of pressure. Through frequent practice, the student gains confidence in using the equipment, and all of this can be done in a classroom. The tutor will check that every single student has mastered the theory and technique before allowing the class to inject human beings. When it comes to dealing with real, live patients, however, there are further aspects of this task which are quite daunting to beginners.

The task is complex, and the student will have to communicate with the patient, overcome his or her own nerves, and strictly observe all the safety precautions regarding body fluids and infection. There is a lot to remember in a very short time, and there are potentially serious consequences if any mistakes are made. In such a learning context, there is usually a more experienced professional standing beside the learner during these first, challenging steps. The role of the qualified professional is to offer encouragement and advice, and step in, if required, to help with any problem or prevent any impending mishap. Students will also be encouraged to talk to each other after the event, sharing their experiences and coaching each other, again in the presence of a guiding professional, so that insights can be gathered to improve student knowledge, skills and confidence. The student nurses must achieve these milestones by overcoming their own individual fears, shortcomings and lack of knowledge. Scaffolding in this example comes from the way new material is graded by difficulty and risk, and by the presence of the professional, guiding and assisting until the student can carry out the task safely, without any assistance.

There is a good reason why so many professional courses make use of scaffolding: it provides tailored support and reassurance for people who are venturing into new areas where there is an element of risk and very often an inability to anticipate what might happen. The guidance of an experienced person encourages the learner to progress to the necessary levels of competence, while at the same time offering some safeguarding of vulnerable clients or patients, and some protection of corporate interests.

Reflection

Are there any specific areas of teaching where you think you might benefit from scaffolded learning? Is this kind of learning provided in your college or university, or workplace? If so, where? If not, how could you find such support? Note: learning about teaching can happen anywhere, and plenty of people have more expertise than you do in specific areas. Make a plan to seek out advice and support from someone who has expertise that you could benefit from.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

This theory offers a very good insight into the workings of the learner's mind, and metaphor of the scaffold helps teachers to grasp the basic tenet of constructivism, namely the idea that learners must construct their own knowledge, piece by piece, and that teachers can assist them in this process by offering structural support for the child's own learning. It is the learner who is doing most of the work in this process, and the teacher must encourage learners to find things out by themselves, rather than offering too much pre-packaged information or advice. Stepping in and offering help in the short term should be a means towards enabling the child to become more independent in the long run.

This idea has been highly influential across many subjects and levels (Mercer, 1994, p. 96). In second language teaching, for example, where interaction between speakers is a key element of classroom activity, there is ample opportunity for teachers to encourage and support learning by timely interventions and well-chosen encouragement. Some speakers need help with pronunciation, while others may struggle with new vocabulary, or with interference from the grammar of another language. Teachers can tailor their feedback to each child, depending on their specific expertise and knowledge or skill gaps. Dual language materials can be used, or re-phrasing difficult constructions so that they make sense to a wider group of children, or exercises that encourage repetition, speaking or singing in unison, for example.

There is much literature available in relation to apprenticeships and professional/clinical training, where a trainee is given a graded series of objectives and works closely with those who are expert in the chosen field. Scaffolding is a useful concept for teacher training, because it encourages teachers to think about the roles that they play, the needs of the learners and how these needs change over time, and the many ways in which language can be used in classroom interactions to set up shared goals, check for understanding, encourage children to focus, and structure their learning towards achieving those goals.

The concept of scaffolding has even been very usefully applied to peer-to-peer learning, and computer learning contexts, although of course there are some necessary limitations in these contexts, such as a reduced competence on the part of the teachers, and a reduced ability to adjust to the learner on the part of software and automated learning devices. The academic debate around what constitutes scaffolding, and what is just ordinary help for students, has helped to clarify and categorise different elements in the teaching and learning process, and it has sparked further research and experimentation to improve pedagogical theory and techniques. One research paper examining the language of children learning together without teacher assistance notes that the concept of scaffolding can be stretched to include group learning in which "language is used in a dynamic and dialogical way to maintain and develop a shared understanding" (Fernandez et al., 2001, p. 53). It is debatable whether this still qualifies as scaffolding, but it the whole idea of scaffolding has clearly influenced this line of research, and it has provided a some core concepts that have value for other theories too.

There are, however, some disadvantages of this theory, such as the practical difficulty that arises when trying to implement it in a busy classroom where there are many children and the teacher cannot monitor the progress of each child in detail all the time. Olson (2007, p. 47) notes that in whole-class teaching "such close monitoring is virtually impossible and teachers have to monitor for general signs of incomprehension, say, watching the modal students, and adjusting teaching accordingly". Bruner's principle of scaffolding remains the same in a large, busy classroom, but it makes heavy demands on teachers if it is to be applied effectively. Teachers have to devise strategies for group, pair and individual work so that they can have at least some opportunities for scaffolding in their teaching.

There is also something of a contradiction between this theory, and theories which view the child as a "lone agent mastering the world on his own" (Bruner, 1986, p. 75). Many educationalists believe in allowing children to experiment for themselves, rather than relying on teachers or other people to show them what to learn and how to learn. It would clearly be inappropriate to use scaffolding all the time, since children do enjoy a more exploratory kind of learning, and they develop many cognitive abilities in unstructured ways, through play and open-ended discussions about a wide range of topics. Scaffolding cannot, therefore, be applied universally as an approach to teaching in all contexts. It lends itself to some contexts better than others.

Reflection

How useful do you find Bruner's ideas about scaffolding? Has this chapter changed your view of teaching in any way?

Try entering the terms 'Bruner' and 'scaffolding' into Google, or an academic database such as JSTOR or Google Scholar. Make a list of all the educational contexts in which authors have made a case for scaffolding to be used. See if you can find reasons why this theory is so popular, and reasons why so many researchers want to modify or extend this theory.

How can this theory be linked to practice?

One of the implications of scaffolding is that the teacher needs to have a thorough knowledge of the subject matter that is being taught, including the various stages that contribute towards the mastering of complex knowledge and tasks. Superficial knowledge of a subject is not sufficient to provide the range of support that different children may require. There may be different ways of doing things, and a teacher who is knowledgeable may be able to provide alternatives to a learner who is struggling to master one particular approach. Sometimes it takes a creative suggestion - for example, an impromptu drawing - to illustrate how two parts fit together in an experiment, or a recommendation to look up a relevant reference book for more information, or advice such as: "go and ask Sharon, since she is very good at this". The nature of the advice will change, according to the individual learner's needs, the context in which the learning takes place, and the range of aids and resources available to support learning. A good teacher will make use of a wide range of tools and strategies to help learners develop their own problem-solving skills.

The teacher also needs to know about cognitive development and have the skill to ask questions that reveal what the learner has understood so far, and what they are still in the process of learning. It often takes quite considerable time to elicit such information from learners, using appropriate language pitched at just the right level to match the child's stage of development, and being watchful for signs that the learner is struggling, or just coping, or managing the task well.

Scaffolding can be linked to many different aspects of teaching practice. It can include the establishment of routines in the classroom, so that newcomers can quickly make sense of what is happening day by day. There may be wall displays with relevant material such as key words and pictures, or letters and numbers, and the room may be arranged in such a way that learners can seek out more information, for example from the book corner. Another useful technique is setting group tasks which require learners to discuss what they are doing. The teacher can then move from group to group and offer tips and comments to encourage them, help them achieve the task that is set or solve any problems that they have not managed to solve on their own.

One of the most important elements for teachers to remember is that it is not just a rigid framework that is devised to cover a whole class, but an adaptive support that requires the teacher to diagnose the learner's progress at regular intervals, and if necessary adapt the support to match the stage that the learner has reached. In other words, scaffolding must be seen as an on-going activity that may require different input from the teacher for each learner, or different input for the same learner as he or she progresses towards the goal. The teacher must make it clear that all learners have valuable knowledge and skills to contribute, and everyone should be part of the discussions.

Example

Alan is a secondary school English teacher who is responsible for an A level English class.  His students are a mixed group, consisting of some very able students who want to study English at college or university, some who have achieved only average grades at GCSE, and a few who are more interested in sciences, but do not have much interest in language and literature. He is teaching them about Shakespeare's sonnets, and the class have been reading some examples and studying the sonnet form. As part of this work, each student has taken notes on the structure of a sonnet, and has prepared a schema for the rhyme scheme that is required.

Alan splits the class into groups of four and asks each group to write a sonnet. The students are allocated to each group by the teacher, to ensure a mix of abilities in each group, and this should ensure that a range of skills are distributed across all the groups. A double period is allocated for planning, followed by two days for reflection at home, and a further double period is allocated for finalising the sonnet. This long allocation of time is necessary, because he wants the students to talk about what they are doing, and discuss different options.

The students work in their groups, and Alan walks from group to group, asking them what they have done so far, and why. One group finished quickly, and so praised them for their fast work and encouraged them to improve their sonnet further, or write another one on a different theme, to see if they could make a sonnet in a more contemporary style. Another group was "stuck" and so he suggested that they should examine one sonnet from their textbook and analyse it closely. He helped them to work out a simple rhyme-scheme with some amusing words, and this scaffolding enabled them to build their sonnet around the rhymes. At the end of the class, there was a discussion about what makes a good sonnet, and why this verse form has been so popular in English literature.

In most schools, the children have a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, and there are often learners at different stages of development. A range of other adults can be involved in the classroom, including teaching assistants, parents, volunteers, English language specialists, members of the community and SEN staff who provide special needs support either on a one-to-one basis for a single learner all of the time, or to a number of children in shorter sessions. These extra adults are invaluable because they can provide further opportunities for scaffolding.

Reflection

Imagine you are a primary school teacher in an inner-city area which has a mixed ethnic population and some social and economic deprivation. You have a class of 26 children, and you have been asked to tell the head teacher what you would like in terms of other adult contribution to your teaching. The budget is limited, and so you have been asked to suggest a mix of paid and unpaid contributions.

In the light of Bruner's theory of scaffolding, what would you ask for? How would you ensure that the other adults are providing the right kind of contribution to encourage deeper learning? Would these other adults need to be qualified in some way? What could you do, to maximise their impact on the children's learning?

Think about the non-teaching staff in and around schools, such as secretaries, janitor, break and mealtime supervisors, crossing patrol, etc. What kind of contributions do they make in this area?

Conclusion

This chapter has introduced the concept of scaffolding. It has explained the origins of this concept in Bruner's observation of mothers and infants, and its connections with Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. A key element in the theory is the metaphor of a temporary structure that is set up to help achieve a specific task. Once the task has been completed, the structure is no longer necessary. A teacher should plan in such a way as to vary the amount of scaffolding, in response to the learner's need.

It is important to note, however, that what is being scaffolded is much more than just the completion of one task, it is the gradual development of the learner's mental processes. The learner is encouraged to think and talk about how to approach the task, how to break it down into its constituent parts, and how to sequence activities in such a way as to complete the task successfully. Having learned these cognitive skills, the learner will be able to go on and complete similar tasks, and even more complex tasks, with less and less need for support from someone else. This is an extremely useful concept that can be applied to many different learning contexts. If used correctly, it places high demands on the teacher, but it produces good results because it helps learners to develop the ability to think independently.

Reflection

By the time you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the examples and reflection sections, you should

  • understand what Bruner's concept of 'scaffolding' means in the context of education
  • understand the origins of this theory in Vygotsky's work
  • be able to use the technical terminology associated with this theory, such as asymmetrical learning, calibration to learner needs and vicarious consciousness
  • relate this theory to educational practice at different levels from infancy to adulthood, and be able to outline some of its strengths and limitations.

You should now reflect on what this theory means for you, and you should complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter.

Reference list

Bruner, J. S. (1975) From communication to language: A psychological perspective. Cognition 3, pp. 811-132.

Bruner, J. S. (1986) Actual Minds: Possible Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fernandez, M., Wegerif, R., Mercer, N. and Rojas-Drummond, S. (2001) Re-conceptualizing 'Scaffolding' and the Zone of Proximal Development in the context of symmetrical collaboration. Journal of Classroom Interaction 36(2), pp. 40-54.

Mercer, N. (1994) Neo-Vygotskian theory and classroom education. In B. Stierer and J. Maybin (Eds.), Language, Literacy and Learning in Educational Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters/The Open University, pp. 92-110.

Olson, D. R. (2007) Jerome Bruner. London: Bloomsbury.

Schaffer, D. R. and Kipp, K. (2014) Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence. Ninth edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S. and Ross, G. (1976) The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 17, pp. 89-100.


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