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If you’re new to the field of teaching, it’s important to know the ways in which students learn and the ways in which their brains develop. Effective teaching involves a careful knowledge of the specific students you teach and where they are on their learning journey. Depending on what subject you teach, you should have a clear idea of what knowledge and skills your students should be able to clearly grasp by the time they have come to the end of your class. When you know where your students are in relation to those expectations and compare where they’re at with those expectations, you can begin to formulate some ideas on how to get your students to where they need to be. If not, however, it’s okay because many important thinkers and psychologists in the realm of education have studied the ways students learn and developed theories that are very helpful to educators on what strategies to take in order to help a student learn. One of those theories came from Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and it’s a theory that is especially helpful for teachers in the classroom. Vygotsky was a leading psychologist in the area of cognitive development. His theory of cognitive development focused on the social aspect of learning and the need for support in the learning process.

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Vygotsky Scaffolding and The Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky proposed that in order for a student to learn a concept or skill, the concept or skill had to be within what he called the student’s “zone of proximal development.” The zone of proximal development is a theory used to determine what a student is capable of learning. If a concept or skill is something that a student could do with the help of a “more knowledgeable other,” then that concept or skill is something they could perform on their own after learning it with support. Vygotsky called the support that students receive in order to learn “scaffolding.”

The goal is to focus instruction on a level that is just a step above what the student is capable of on their own without support. With support or scaffolding, the student can learn the concept or skill and practice with their supportive mentor or more knowledgeable other until they are comfortable to do it on their own. This is the point at which the scaffolding is removed, and the student has mastered the concept or skill. If the concept or skill that a teacher wants a student to learn is not something the student could handle even with support, then Vygotsky would say that the concept or skill is outside of the student’s zone of proximal development. An extreme example of this would be expecting a first-grade student who has recently learned to read to answer an open-ended response question on the thematic structure of a story they’ve just read. They’ve just learned to read. An in depth analysis from their reading is something that is completely outside of their zone of proximal development.

Why is This Important?

Vygotsky’s theory can be very beneficial in helping teachers to plan out their instruction. It helps them to think the through the knowledge and skills that their students are expected to master and determine the order in which to teach those things. Some concepts require prior knowledge that the student may not already possess. If that’s the case, then the teacher knows that the concept is currently outside of their zone of proximal development, and it is something the teacher will have to slowly aim for, step-by-step. Using the ideas of scaffolding and zone of proximal development could help a teacher to line up the things they need to teach for a whole year and build a sequence by which students will slowly build mastery over one concept before moving onto a next level concept.

The theory can also help a teacher deal with any personal discouragement they may feel when it seems like a student just isn’t understanding when he or she explains as clearly as he or she can. That would be the moment to realize that students are on a journey of cognitive development. While teachers should have expectations for their students, their role is to provide the scaffolding that will help the student to master the concepts in a sequential order.

Putting Vygotsky Scaffolding to Work

If you want to put Vygotsky’s theory to work in your classroom, here are some steps for doing so. The first thing you’ll need to do is to determine all the concepts your students need to master in your class. Consult your state’s educational expectations for what your students need to know. Once you have your list of concepts in front of you, you’ll need to spend some considerable time determining what concepts your students likely already have mastered and the ones that are just a step beyond their capability. You might need to do either some formal or informal assessment in class with your students to determine where they’re at in regard to some of the concepts you plan to teach. You’ll need to determine what concepts students will need to have mastered in order to move onto more advanced concepts. Your goal is to develop a sequential order in which one concept builds on another.

Once you have your sequential order in place, you can begin to plan your individual lessons. Remember to teach concepts that are within your students’ zone of proximal development, but currently a step above their capability on their own. Structure your activities so that students have appropriate scaffolding for practicing the concept. Once they’ve had plenty of practice with scaffolding, you’ll slowly remove the scaffolding until the student has mastered the concept on their own. Another important thing to keep in mind when thinking about your individual students is any learning disabilities they may be diagnosed with and adjust your instruction accordingly.

Watching students learn is an incredible experience, and it is one that keeps teachers dedicated to their job day in and day out. Vygotsky’s theory of scaffolding can be one of the most beneficial concepts a teacher can put into place within their classroom. It relies on the way in which students develop cognitively, and it provides a healthy and structured environment for learning.

Page Last Updated: July 2021

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