Theory of Scaffolding

Literature around Scaffolding:

There have been several discussions around scaffolding, in an attempt to define what it means for education. At the early stages of the theory of scaffolding, Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) explain the importance of the interactive, instructional relationship that tutors/teachers have in a learner's development, supporting that the attendance of others is significant for scaffolding skills acquisition and problem solving. They also emphasize on the importance for realizing the value of a solution to generate the sequence of steps that will lead to the solution of the problem, without scaffolding by an adult. As argued, this realization will result in effective feedback, as the learner will be able to value every step towards the solution, and therefore, in order for scaffolding to be effective the learner needs to generate solutions to the problem that are identifiable to them (
Wood, Bruner, and Ross, 1976). However, in this scaffolding process, the tutor does not necessarily need to be a human; it can be a virtual, non-player character (NPC) as well. In this project, the scaffolding process takes place in the virtual environment of Quest Atlantis, where learners embark on a mission to resolve a problem, part of which requires the decryption of Mayan signs, and interpretation of them in English. The facilitators in this case are the NPCs that learners/players come across during their mission.

A rich experience is what a leaner needs to develop to a knowledgeable individual, and the impact of the surrounding environment and the scaffolds in it are important for learning. Vygotsky (1978) has proposed that the learner needs to be scaffolded in order to acquire all the skills that would have been difficult to acquire independently. The Vygotskian theoretical perspective holds that learners, and especially children can perform more challenging tasks when assisted, and that they can reach a high level of development (Zone of Proximal Development). According to Vygotsky, there are two aspects of learning development; the "actual development" and the "potential development" (Vygotsky, 1978). The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the "distance between the actual development 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" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). Further, based on Vygotsky's theory, the ZPD can also be defined as the area between what the learners can achieve by themselves, and what they can attain with the help of more knowledgeable individuals (Video 1). Therefore, meaningful learning is being enhanced in the learner's ZPD, with the use of all the available scaffolds afforded by the surrounding environment. Scaffolds in the case of the virtual geocaching project are considered to be the mission page, NPCs, boxes with information, scrolls with information, translation tool, etc.

Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding

Video 1: A video about the Zone of Proximal Development and
Scaffolding, describing how the process works and enhances learning.


Pea, in his commentary paper (2004, p. 431) discussed the role of "fading" in the scaffolding process, characterizing it as "intrinsic" to the scaffolding process. A scaffold used for the learner must be gradually removed during the learning process, until it is completely gone, and when the learner has reached the learning goal (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). It is argued that, if the learning help is not being gradually removed, then the process is not called scaffolding anymore, but distributed intelligence, namely, intelligence that is a collective product, and where the individual does not internalize learning (Pea, 2004).

Over time, there have been numerous software tools created to scaffold meaningful learning experiences, in and out of schools. Scaffolding is an inherent characteristic of games, either in virtual or in physical life. In the case of computer games, the scaffolds for performing a task are provided to the player/learner in the virtual context, enhancing active participation. This project aims at exploring the potentials of scaffolding such rich experiences with the use of virtual tools. According to the sociocultural theoretical perspective, children must have time to practice roles and behaviors through play. Therefore, it treats the several gaming tasks and virtual tools as scaffolds for learning development. In a similar vein, Vygotsky argued that game play in general can offer scaffolding-rich experiences, as well as opportunities for a player to "act a head above himself" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 74) extending their abilities in ways that would not be possible without play (Video 2).


Fantasy play and learning- A Vygotskian approach

Video 2: A Vygotskian approach to fantasy play and learning. The video provides a definition of scaffolding, describes the Zone of Proximal Development, as well as some practical perspectives on game play.


Videogames, expertly craft ways of scaffolding support through what Gee (2003, p. 138) calls the "explicit information on-demand and just-in-time principle"Computer games host contexts that frame problems, or aspects of problems and learners become engaged in those situations, to form their understanding and contribute to a solution. In this case, learners use scaffolds in the frames of a situation, in a context (whether it is real or virtual) to make meaning of a situation, transfer learning across multiple gaming situations as well as real-life situations, participate actively to make a change in the context, and ultimately enhance learning effectively (Lave, 1988). In such gaming environments, transformational play unfolds around the notion of reflexive action (Barab et al., 2009) where player must take the consequences of their actions and choices in consideration. However, this consideration takes place in a context where the outcomes of choices do not affect players/learners in any way apart for their game play.


Scaffolding Definition as given in a class about "Designing Learning in Context":

  • Scaffolding[1] is a set of things that compensate for a learner’s lack of required explicit and/or implicit knowledge that enables the learner to be able to successfully engage the activity with acceptable results while maintaining the learner’s substantive involvement. (Learner+Scafold+Task=Success). 
    • Implicit in the definition is that once the learner acquires the explicit and/or implicit knowledge the scaffold is no longer scaffolding.
    • If the learner only acquires part of the knowledge associated with the scaffold, but still needs the scaffold in some different form or level, the process of changing the scaffold to the changing learner knowledge level is called fading.
    • Implicit in the definition is that something is scaffolding only when engaged during the activity, not only before or only after. 
  • Scaffolding also promotes learning of required and unknown explicit and/or implicit knowledge of some aspect of the activity, but not necessarily learning of all aspects of knowledge related to every scaffold at any give time. 
    • If scaffolding is not promoting any learning and still compensating for learner’s lack of explicit and/or implicit knowledge, then it is not scaffolding rather it is a "permanent knowledge crutch."  A permanent crutch undermines all activity related learning because there is no need to learn because the learner can successfully engage the activity with the permanent crutch. 
    • Individual scaffolds can completely compensate for learner’s lack of explicit and/or implicit knowledge, without promoting learning if the explicit and/or implicit knowledge related to other scaffolds are being learned.  This is called a "temporary knowledge crutch." A temporary crutch allows the learner the opportunity to learn in other areas of the activity.

My approach to scaffolding:


In this section I am providing my personal definition of scaffolding, as I perceive it, after intense thinking, and after a lot influence by several theorists that talked about scaffolding. This definition has derived from and matured through my constant online and in-class discussions in the frames of a class on "Designing Learning in Context"
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Scaffolding is a process through which an individual/learner moves from the supported to the independent level of learning. In this process there is an expert source that provides help/support to the learner, while engaging in the process of completing an activity. Throughout the scaffolding process there is also a plan/strategy followed (scaffolding is intentional, and not a random process) by the expert source, as well as a plan/strategy for gradually removing the scaffold (fading), when the situation affords it.
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[1] A scaffold is one in the set of scaffolding and compensates for one aspect of a learner’s lack of explicit and/or implicit knowledge that enables the learner to successfully engage the activity with acceptable results.
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