Rethinking Instructional Scaffolding

“Scaffolding” by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

This article is a collaboration with Dr. Dori Coblentz, third-year Brittain Fellow in the Writing and Communication Program at Georgia Tech. It is the first part in a series on the development and implementation of an interactive ethics training module for Georgia Tech’s first-year composition and computer science students.

When we decided to collaborate on a series of ethics training modules together, we were seeking to rectify a curricular oversight: students at Georgia Tech are required to take an ethics course, but they do not have to take this class before engaging in public-facing, client-involved projects. With Dori teaching English 1102, the second of two classes in the composition sequence for first-year students, and Jonathan teaching LMC 3432, the technical writing course for third and fourth-year computer science majors who are engaged in the creation of digital projects with professional clients, we felt we had the perfect opportunity to patch this lapse. The projects from Jonathan’s class could provide students in Dori’s class with real-world ethical situations to address and thus give them the early college-career ethics experience that they had the potential to miss.

But we soon realized that we also had a unique pedagogical reality on our hands: we were working with two different student levels at the same time. Dori’s students were emerging scholars engaged in a phase of writing practice and rhetorical exploration; Jonathan’s students were experienced upper-level computer scientists who had declared a major and thus committed to implementing this specified technical knowledge. As much as we wanted discussion to be a central part of their interaction, we couldn’t just throw both groups of students in a room and hope that they would effectively learn from each other. Was it Jonathan’s students—armed with their project experience—that were prepared to offer Dori’s students ethical solutions? Or was it Dori’s students as the ones looking for ethics experience that should be making ethical recommendations? Who was leading who? Or how would these students, both in distinct phases of their college careers, ultimately come to work together?

This disparity between the students, reinforced our need to “scaffold” our assignments so the two groups could keep up with each other. Scaffolding—the pedagogical concept first coined by David Wood, Jerome Bruner, and Gail Ross in their article “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving” but traceable back to the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his “zone of proximal development” (ZPD)—speaks to the scene of students from differing levels interacting with one another in the hopes of improving their skills. [1] ZPD, as Vygotsky writes, describes the “level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” [2] Or as many scholars have come to understand it, there is a threshold between “novice” students and peer “experts” that might be bridged by pairing the two together. The expert can provide some sort of structural guidance—thereby “scaffolding” the other student’s learning—and gradually fade away as the novice attains more autonomous, expert levels of proficiency. In “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,” Wood et al. give the example of a tutor demonstrating how to create a pyramid with a set of interlocking blocks. A tutor might start by connecting two blocks together in the hopes that the student comes to perform the operation on their own. Once the student does, the tutor can encourage the student to repeat that operation or emulate other steps. [3] We wondered if such a model could be applied to the instruction of ethics. Jonathan’s students, because of their seniority and project development experience, might have expertise that could be passed down to Dori’s students through some form of structured interaction.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

But we were also struck by how scaffolding, as it was popularly understood, tied us to a rigid, hierarchical conception of how learning works—one that didn’t actually seem applicable to the subject matter at hand. Implicit in the scaffolding metaphor is the idea that student learning moves in an upward, linear fashion, or that such prescribed upward moves are the most desirable ones for both students and instructors. It similarly presumes that students themselves exist on firmly identifiable rungs of a ladder, capable of raising one another up through a set of incremental lessons or steps. When it came to the real-world projects the computer science students were engaged in, we didn’t have definitive solutions or answers for the students build up to. We were also unwilling to declare either of our student bodies as definitive “experts” or “novices” when it came to ethics. There was a whole host of values and experiences that had informed their perspectives, and there was no way to know whether or not age or academic level had provided them quantifiably “more” experiences that would automatically translate into ethical know-how. The fact that some of the biggest ethical scandals in business and technology are committed by adults only highlights how one doesn’t necessarily get “better” at ethics as one ages and becomes more experienced. [4] Scaffolding imagined as incremental steps didn’t seem to capture the actual way learning moves—or is subsequently enacted—especially for more nuanced topics like ethics.

We weren’t alone in our frustrations with scaffolding and its perceived forms. Scholars have recently noted that the popular conceptions of scaffolding and ZPD have effaced much of the complexity that was part of Vygotsky’s original theory and thinking. According to Peter Smagorinsky, such errant simplification is due in large part to the poor translations, and subsequently faulty readings, of Vygotsky’s work. Two particular readings stand out. The first fails to account for what Smagorinsky calls the more “long-term developmental process” that Vygotsky suggests in his description of ZPD. As Vygotsky writes in Mind in Society, his most widely referenced account of ZPD,

The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the “buds” or “flowers” of development rather than the “fruits” of development […] what is in the zone of proximal development today will be the actual developmental level tomorrow—that is, what a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow. [5]

Photo of Lev Vygotsky courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

For Smagorinsky, Vygotsky’s emphasis on the “embryonic” nature of development—indicated by his references to the “buds” and “flowers” rather than finalized “fruits”—suggests a far more extended process of learning that is not necessarily achievable in the confines of a single interaction, assignment, or module. Such a process is interested in promoting the student’s or child’s overall ability to grow rather than the “immediate changes” that might be realized. [6] In this sense, to even talk about scaffolding within the confines of a discrete interaction with a student is to give the idea short shrift. Scaffolding is, arguably, not concerned with individual skills but larger developmental strategies that a student comes to possess and use well beyond their day in the classroom.

The second misconception actually has to do with the translation of the word “tomorrow.” Long taken literally rather than figuratively, English-speaking scholars have faultily interpreted the word to suggest a short-term process that might provide “guidance today” followed by student gains the very next. “[Tomorrow] is 100% metaphorical, not 24 hours,” Smagorinsky’s Russian-born scholar and friend Anna Stetsenko confirms. “‘Tomorrow’ is often used [in Russian] in this sense, meaning ‘the future’, or more precisely (and depending on context as is the case here in this quote) ‘soon in the future.’” [7] Unaware of this nuance, instructors have often viewed a short series of interactions or assignments as an effective use of scaffolding. The celebration of such incremental and immediately appreciable gains, however, may be ignoring the underlying developmental abilities that ultimately inform learning.

What is lost in the current understanding of scaffolding then are the larger collaborative dynamics that cause learning, as well as the way such dynamics are informed by a larger socio-cultural context. At the heart of Vygotsky’s work is mediation and the idea that all interactions are both informed by and reflective of a shared cultural knowledge. The dyadic expert-student relationship is, in a sense, too limited of a view: it assumes that a relationship between individuals can sufficiently impart mastery when there is larger collective “intersubjectivity” in which that learning happens and must exist. [8] For example, an instructor might provide a form or template for a student on how to write a coherent paragraph, but this does not mean that the student is bound to that template or will necessarily follow it exactly. They may very well—and we think most instructors would agree should—innovate on it in the process of doing their own writing. In this way, the values and assumptions that ground a one-to-one expert-student interaction are by no means the only values and assumptions that inform either party. Thus, scaffolding properly considered attends to the ways in which learning is happening in—and also contributing to—a “collective…cognitive space.” [9] Scaffolding is ultimately not asking for or measuring itself in carbon copies of action but thinking about how a lifetime of developmental skills might lead to forms of mastery.

In light of these findings, Smagorinsky suggests that Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” might be better understood as a “zone of next development”—a translation that he himself derived from the 1990 documentary film The Butterflies of Zagorsk. That film documents children who are deaf and blind learning to communicate by spelling out words on one another’s hands, a process that the narrator Michael Dean describes as the “zone of next development.” Smagorinsky prefers this translation for a couple of reasons. For one, the term “proximal” errantly suggests the idea of adjacency between skills when in fact the development Vygotsky is interested in is a long-term acculturation. Furthermore, the notion of “next” development suggests a significant progression that has value outside of the immediate task. The point of spelling out words on one another’s hands was not simply to teach children a hand-based writing-and-reading skill but to teach an alternative means of communication that can enjoy a broad range of applications in society. [10]

Vygotskian scaffolding—not in its commonly imagined form but in its recently re-envisioned understanding—thus compelled us to reconsider many of the vantages we had when approaching the teaching of ethics. Either Jonathan’s or Dori’s students could simply impart to the other ethical information in the form of a suggested answer or solution, but these kinds of morsels would only be useful as far as the specific scenario in which they were offered. In fact, any attempt at asserting that students should abide by, or maybe even an ascend to, an established ethical “principle” risked limiting, rather than expanding, their thinking. Scaffolding proper seemed to encourage focusing on the space around, rather than above or below, incremental pieces of information and skills. What are the values that inform a particular “ethical” suggestion? How does a particular implementation of ethical thinking stand to effect the technological space one is working in, and how might it influence further developments? Perhaps more simply, what is the ethical principle behind something like data privacy form in a location tracking app, and what form might that principle take in a project that has nothing to do with location tracking?

To return to matters of practical application, all of this is not to say that rigorously structuring a novice student’s learning has no place in pedagogy or that the idea of different student levels should somehow be ignored. Rather, rethinking scaffolding invites us to take a wider view of what such microscopic structuring hopes to achieve and how it might be used. Indeed, the keys to successful scaffolding lie not in the identifiable operations that a student will come away with but the many more innovations that will come about from such learning. How the scaffolding fits in to the existing strategies for ethics teaching will be the subject of the next article in this series.

Works Cited

[1] D. Wood, J.S. Bruner, & G. Ross, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17, no. 2 (1976).

[2] L.S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (1978), eds. and trans. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 86.

[3] Wood et al., 92.

[4] William H. Bishop suggests this point in his article “The Role of Ethics in 21st Century Organizations” by citing the subprime mortgage crisis and Enron. The fact that responses to these events have been essentially “reactive” points to the ways in which ethics has been rendered a post-facto corrective diagnosis rather than a guiding set of principles. Indeed, the prevalence of such “reactive ethics” is evidence of the ways in which institutions and the people within them have failed to articulate any kind of ethical values and thus are doomed to act unethically.

[5] Vygotsky, 86-87.

[6] P. Smagorinsky, “Is Instructional Scaffolding Actually Vygotskian, and Why Should It Matter to Literacy Teachers?” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 62, no. 3 (2018): 255.

[7] Smagorinsky, 255.

[8] Smagorinsky, 256.

[9] Smagorinsky, 255.

[10] P. Smagorinsky, “Deconflating the ZPD and instructional scaffolding: Retranslating and reconceiving the zone of proximal development as the zone of next development,” Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, no. 16 (2018): 73-74.

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Jonathan Shelley

About Jonathan Shelley

Jonathan Shelley is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he teaches technical communication courses for Computer Science majors. His research focuses on theories and depictions of friendship in Renaissance prose, poetry, and drama.
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