S is for Scaffolding

4 04 2010

In An A-Z I include an entry for scaffolding, but don’t mention the fact that it has become such a buzz term that it’s starting to lose all significance. Teachers and trainers regularly talk about their role in ‘scaffolding’ learning, but if you unpick their examples, it’s difficult to distinguish these from simple question-and-answer sequences that have always characterised effective teaching. Here, for example, is an extract that Rod Ellis uses to exemplify scaffolding:

1 Teacher         I want you to tell me what you can see in the picture or what’s wrong with the picture.

2 Learner            A /paik/ (= bike)

3 Teacher            A cycle, yes. But what’s wrong?

4 Learner            /ret/ (= red)

5 Teacher            It’s red yes. What’s wrong with it?

6 Learner            Black

7 Teacher            Black. Good. Black what?

8 Learner            Black /taes/ (= tyres)

 (Ellis, 2003, p. 181)

 

Ellis explains that “the teacher is able to draw on his experience of communicating with low-level proficiency learners to adjust the demands of the task and to scaffold the interaction so that a successful outcome is reached” (p. 182).  But I’m not convinced. It seems that – far from being an instance of co-constructed learning – the teacher and the learner are talking at cross-purposes, and that all this is mapped on to the traditional IRF (initiate—respond–follow-up) model of classroom discourse. This does not seem to embody Bruner’s (1978) definition of scaffolding as “the steps taken to reduce the degree of freedom in carrying out some tasks so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring” (quoted in Gibbons, 2002).

What, then, are these ‘steps’? Looking at the literature on scaffolding, a number of key features have been identified. Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) in one of the first attempts to define the term, itemise six:

1 recruiting interest in the task

2 simplifying the task

3 maintaining pursuit of the goal

4 marking critical features and discrepancies between what has been produced and the ideal solution

5 controlling frustration during problem solving

6 demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.

 (quoted in Ellis op. cit)

 

What they seem to leave out – and what is so attractive (to me) about the metaphor of scaffolding – is the relinquishing of the teacher’s role as the learner appropriates the targeted skill – what Applebee (1986) calls ‘transfer of control’: “As students internalize new procedures and routines, they should take a greater responsibility for controlling the progress of the task such that the amount of interaction may actually increase as the student becomes more competent” (quoted in Foley 1994). Also missing is what van Lier (1996) calls the “principle of continuity”, i.e. that “there are repeated occurrences, often over a protracted period of time, of a complex of actions, characterized by a mixture of ritual repetition and variations” (p. 195). That is to say, scaffolded learning is not a one-off event, but is embedded in repeated, semi-ritualised, co-authored language-mediated activities, typical of many classroom routines such as games and the opening class chat. Finally, any definition of scaffolding needs to highlight the fact that this kind of interaction is a site for learning opportunities, and is not simply a way of modelling, supporting, or practising interaction.

Does this tighter definition of scaffolding improve matters? Or is it now so tight that it deprives teachers of a useful metaphor for a whole range of classroom interactions?

References:

Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching, OUP.

Foley, J. 1994. ‘Key concepts: Scaffolding’. ELT Journal 48/1.

Gibbons, P. 2002. Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning. Heinemann (USA)

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Longman,