Vygotsky, ZPD, Scaffolding, Connectivism and Personal Learning Networks

 There is a fascinating distributed dialogue about the nature of instructional scaffolding, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and how they can be viewed in the domain of today's learning landscapes.  Graham Attwell identifies the issue of the role of Teacher in the work on ZPD.  He points out that a lot of learning occurs without one person acting in a Teacher role.  Indeed the role of a Teacher, as such, is only really necessary in the type of education system which we have, designed to cater for the industrial age's needs.  In Vygotsky's terms, the Teacher is seen as having a role in the exploitation (or definition) of the ZPD, which is the zone of learning capacity beyond that of the learner in isolation when supported by an adult or by collaboration with 'more capable peers'.  The Teacher role is part of the scaffolding described by Bruner, a resource to help the learner expand their capacity to acquire new (to them) knowledge and skills.  In Navigating your personal landscape (or seascape) I describe this role as a Pilot - someone who has local knowledge of the learning landscape and who may be able to provide guidance on finding a suitable route to your goal.

Piaget, a constructivist, suggested that children learn through peer interactions and resolving conflicts of opinion.  A good treatment of Piaget and Vygotsky is given in Peer influences in cognitive development: Piagetian and Vygotskyian perspectives in Lev Vygotsky: critical assessments vol 3, ed Lloyd & Fernyhough, 1999.  If we take the view that research is essentially the same process as learning, genuinely new knowledge cannot come about through the presence of an expert (unless we posit the presence of a higher being present), so it seems that new learning can occur without one.  When seeking to educate large numbers of learners, however, the presence of a Teacher role facilitates their learning, at least in some cases - that is certainly the intention of the design of our education systems. 

It seems to me that a slight modification of Vygotsky's definition of ZPD reconciles the Piagetian and Vygotskyian views.  For me, the ZPD is the zone in which learning is made easier through support by differently abled others. These others may be physically present, or remote in terms of location or time.  Vygotsky and Piaget both provide support for my learning through the extension of their knowledge in written media.  Steve Wheeler, amongst others,  provides geographically remote support through blog posts (and more on that one later) and my colleagues at OdinLab at the University of Reading (e.g. Shirley Williams) provide support through direct contact as well as through the more remote methods.  

Modelling the acquisition of knowledge (a.k.a. learning), Steve Wheeler suggests the scaffolding removes the need for the knowledgeable other.  The scaffolding represents the learner's Personal Learning Network (PLN) (to some degree, at least), enabling the learner to build new knowledge through their interactions with a range of other people and resources.  I would argue that this works because we are good at recognising patterns and identifying gaps; social learning fundamentally occurs through our attempts to negotiate meaning with others and recognising holes in our existing knowledge as a result.  The act of negotiation literally creates new meanings in our minds (however those are represented), and we are prompted by our inquisitive drive to examine how well the new knowledge fits with other patterns we have observed.

If we view the building in Wheeler's model as representing communal knowledge, and each builder as an individual learner, the scaffolding is part of the Personal Learning Environment (PLE).  The scaffolding is a tool which is continuously being affected by the community (the builders) to provide the support necessary for each of the individuals to achieve their goals.  It provides the support necessary for each individual to make their contributions to the sum of communal knowledge, the building in this model.  The individual acts of adding bricks (or other elements of the building) are acts of sharing one's learning, in a social constructionist model.  Each contribution builds on society's level of knowledge, helping create meaning and understanding.  The builders (our learners), on the other hand, experience this in a social constructivist way, developing their own understanding.  

The building is not governed by an architects plans (again, unless we assume the presence of a higher authority) but emerges through the complex interactions between the builders and their interactions with the environment, or landscape.  The flexible nature of the system allows it to cope with even quite dramatic environmental shifts - high winds, to extend the model, which may not be so well catered for if being built to a blue print.  The blue print, in this case, can be seen as a curriculum - a useful tool for the mass production of buildings (or learning in students heads), but one which is not necessarily well suited to the needs of either the individuals or of society as a whole.  In the case of the Personal Learning Environment, which is typically viewed as the set of tools an individual acquires to help with their learning, it is important to also extend the model to include other environmental factors which may be beyond the individuals control.  Equivalent to the high winds on our communal building site, changes in the availability of tools can provide impetus for learning, and challenge existing assumptions.

The Personal Learning Network provides challenges and support for learning, and forms a part of the Personal Learning Environment.  Both the PLE and the PLN are tools used by, and modified by, the learner and by society as a whole.  I suspect this is the reason Wheeler mentions Activity Theory (AT), and was a primary motivation in re-examining how AT relates to these types of systems in Folksonomical Reification (Parslow et al):  

Just as learning is an act of negotiation and forming narrative, the same model works for considering the act of creating one's identity.  Our work on Digital Identity is increasingly pointing towards, in my view, the idea that the individual recognises their own identity through interaction with others.  Indeed, their identity is really what is seen by others, in many ways, and their sense of self can be dramatically altered by the actions and assessments of others.  This can be seen as being similar to assessments of learning - our 'image' as portrayed to a potential employer in academic terms is the product of the outcomes of assessment processes by others of our abilities in a number of fields.  In DI terms we talk about facets of identity, and these can be seen as being an analogue of qualifications.  

Why mention DI in the context of learning and scaffolding, PLEs and PLNs?  Because they are intimately linked when you are engaging in electronically mediated learning.  Your ability to attract important people to your PLN, for instance, is influenced by the projection of your identity into the community.  Of course, in many ways this is not a new phenomenon - the same could be said of the pupil in class attracting more 1:1 attention from a teacher by modifying their behaviour appropriately.  However, there are subtle but profound differences, largely down to the persistence of information and the searchability of it.  The persistent nature of our digital footprints means that society can make judgements on our track record with, perhaps alarming, ease, but it also means that we are starting to be in a position to build tools to help the learner chart their historical progress through their learning landscape and offer advice based on rigorous analysis to aid in their future development.

Wheeler points out that the PLE provides the scaffolding which supports the learning process.  The PLE, in turn, is a dynamic structure which is supported by, and helps to change, the Digital Identity (or, indeed, the social identity) of the learner.  The PLN and the PLE, at any one time, are instantaneous reifications of the set of (as yet, unknown) rules which govern the complex interactions between resources, individuals and their own knowledge.  

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This post was mentioned on Twitter by PatParslow: My response to @timbuckteeth's post on scaffolding http://bit.ly/1bRob4 at http://brains.parslow.net/node/1558


ZPD and peripheral participation

Excellent piece pulling together theories, making them understandable and relating them to current practice and people. Possibly only missing Lave's concept of peripheral participation and community of practice. I have always assumed an affinity between the idea of a journey from periphery to centre of a community of practice and that journey across a ZPD.


The domain of learning is significantly hampered by progressive revisions of what it means to learn, to know, and to understand. A subset of connectivism, network forming, is presented as an accurate model for addressing how people learn.

Intresting facts

I am glad that there is someone who actually acknowledges the role that assessment plays on ones identity. These assessments could be in a form of tests at school or job interviews, when you feel one of these two it always puts a dent into the way you viewed yourself. this has happened to me a countless times. It can go as far as killing ones self esteem.