Buzzwords: Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development

Hello buzzwords! Every profession has them. The one word that leapt out to me when I entered the Education Faculty was SCAFFOLDING. In my first week at university I think I heard it daily…I probably still do, but I don’t notice it anymore. three facts about the (1)

Scaffolding exists in the educationalists lexicon thanks to Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his Theory of Proximal Development. The idea is a straightforward one, but so fundamental to teaching and learning. Scaffolded inquiry essentially posits that learners should be given opportunities to engage in tasks that would otherwise be beyond their current abilities. By having a teacher ‘scaffold’ learning (through coaching, task sequencing and guided learning), the activity becomes more tractable for students, transforming difficult tasks into ones within the student’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky, 1978; Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007, p. 100). Scaffolding can be distributed across the learning environment, the teacher, curriculum materials or supports like educational software. Teachers play a key role in scaffolding ‘productive engagement’ with the task, tools and other students, encouraging deep thinking and self-directed learning and questioning (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007, p. 100).

This short-ish video sums up the ZPD and scaffolding (if you can see past the occasional awkward silence to the end!!!)


Hmelo-Silver, C.E., Duncan, R.G. and Chinn, C.A. (2007).  Scaffolding and achievement in problem based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006), Educational Psychologist, 42(2), pp 99-107.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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