Welcome back to “Foundations,” in which I discuss various core concepts of child development and early childhood education. Last week I wrote about constructivism, Jean Piaget’s theory that children are born with brains already structured for self-motivated learning—learning which then happens through play and experimentation with hands-on experiences. Today I’ll talk about social constructivism, a theory which is in many ways diametrically opposed to Piaget’s theory, and yet equally important to understanding how children learn.
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who lived and worked in the early part of the 20th century—he died young in 1934. His ideas never really made it out of Russia until the 1970s, when westerners “rediscovered” him and said, “Oh my goodness, this stuff is amazing!” Vygotsky did his work before Piaget, but his work makes a lot of sense as a reply to constructivism. Constructivism says that children’s brains are built for learning, and that learning is an internal, self-controlled process. Vygosky, by contrast, says that children’s brains are built for SOCIAL learning, and that all learning is essentially a socially-mediated process.
Let’s take an example to see what he means. Imagine a 2½ year old, just learning to put on her shoes; let’s say she’s been wearing crocs and is transitioning to shoes with velcro. Vygotsky would ask what learning she’s doing. Is she learning to slip her feet into wide-mouthed shoes? No, she’s been wearing crocs forever and already knows how to do that—it’s too easy a task, and there’s no learning to be done there. Is she learning to tie shoes with laces? No, she has no experience with that and she’s not developed enough—it’s too hard a task, and there’s no learning to be done there either. What she’s learning is how to get her feet into tighter shoes, and how to close the velcro—a goldilocks kind of task, not too easy and not too hard. And how does she learn to succeed in this just-right task? Why, with a little bit of help from an adult or other “expert.” “Here, hold the shoe like this to get your foot in. Okay, now pull the second velcro. Good job, you did it!” Through a process of little hints and encouragements, the child is allowed to succeed where she would have failed on her own. By repeating this process over and over again, the child gradually can do more and more on her own, and the adult gives help on gradually more and more difficult tasks.
Vygotsky takes this familiar scenario and builds a whole theory out of it. Those tasks that are just right—not too hard or too easy, but just hard enough that the child can succeed with a little bit of help? Vygotsky calls that collection of tasks the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. You can think of it as the list of “what the child will learn next.” The ZPD is a moving target, of course—every time the child learns something new, and therefore is no longer learning that task at the bottom of the list, there’s another slightly more complex skill the child is now able to learn that just got added to the ZPD. Also, remember that learning in the ZPD is a SOCIAL process. When the child encounters a challenging task, they need a little bit of help, a little bit of support, in order to succeed. Vygotsky calls this help “scaffolding”—the help you give to prop the child up until they can stand on their own. Scaffolding is a subtle art. Too little help and the child fails; too much help and the child doesn’t learn very much. The scholar Barbara Rogoff refers to this whole process as “guided participation,” and says that children learn and develop through joint participation in everyday cultural activities—making food, getting dressed, interacting with other people…
What does this look like in the preschool classroom? Well, first of all, teachers must be acute observers of children. You’ve got to be constantly figuring out what challenges the child is working on, and what he is struggling with. You’ve got to be present to help children when they’re struggling, but backing off when they’re doing well. Scaffolding in the classroom is an art—you’re always trying to figure out, “What’s just the right question to ask right now? What’s the right hint to give? Should I step in, or let her figure it out herself?” You’re always trying to keep right on that knife-edge, where children are always struggling a little bit, but not so much that they’re not succeeding. A crucial part of being successful in this model is building positive relationships with the children. In the context of a close, caring relationship, teachers are better observers of children and can make better choices about the scaffolding they need—and children are more likely to accept subtle help from adults they know and trust. Teachers often also consciously try to pair more and less experienced children, so that they can scaffold each other. Reggio-inspired schools tend to be good at using social constructivist approaches, by encouraging mixed-ability groups of children to work on self-chosen projects that push them to the limits of their abilities.
What does this look like at home? You can help your child learn the most by participating in their play and explorations—but not participating TOO much. Remember, the right amount of struggle is “a little bit.” When they hit a challenge, give them hints and encouragement, but don’t solve the problem for them. Also, you can invite your child to participate in all your everyday activities. For instance, your preschooler can wash and tear up the lettuce for the salad at dinner time; when that gets too easy, they can peel the carrots, and then cut cherry tomatoes with a butter knife, and onward from there. With you close by doing other tasks and appreciating their help, they’re encouraged to push themselves to achieve tasks they couldn’t achieve alone.
Finally, at both home and school, play is a central piece of a social constructivist approach. Play provides a social context that allows children to push themselves and experiment with all different sorts of tasks, building their capabilities that then transfer to “real life.” Vygotsky said, “In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”
Constructivism describes learning as essentially an internal process; social constructivism describes it as essentially an external process. Despite this fundamental difference, both perspectives are useful in different situations, and absolutely crucial to understanding how children learn and develop.