1.4.2 Constructivism 3: Bruner and Scaffolding

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 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). 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. This idea has been highly influential across many subjects and levels (Mercer, 1994, p. 96). 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.

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.

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. The nature of the advice given 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.

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. 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.

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.


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.

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