Submitted by Melinda Mathay
From Chapter 3: Classic Theories of Learning and Cognition
The sociocultural (or cultural-historical) theory of learning, developed by the Russian intellectual Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934), emphasizes social interaction, historical context, and culture as primary forces in cognitive development. The most basic premise of this theory is that all cognitive growth in children results from interactions with parents, teachers, and peers within cultural contexts, and the theory continues to impact practices in education at the classroom level today (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).
Imbedded in the tenants of sociocultural theory is the assertion, similar to Piaget’s constructivism, that knowledge is not poured in, but rather built, and children are viewed as active participants in constructing or co-constructing their own knowledge through social interaction, giving rise to the term social constructivism (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). Adherents of social constructivism then create the constructivist classroom, wherein teaching includes three socially based interactions: scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, and classroom discussion.
Scaffolding involves a mentor, teacher, or text (or, increasingly, computer) assisting a novice or student in mastering new skills and can be indirect, through hints or guiding questions, or direct, by offering sequential or supervised instruction (Bergin & Bergin, 2002; Fisher & Frey, 2007). This breaking down of skills into smaller units for guidance to a higher level of performance can occur not only cognitively, but also in the social, emotional, or physical realms (Bergin & Bergin, 2012), and is commonly used, as it offers the opportunity for incremental measures of progress and feedback (Fisher & Frey, 2007).
Reciprocal teaching is an application of social constructivism in the classroom in which the student adopts the role of ‘teacher’ in a small group setting, through guided questions (scaffolding) on the part of an expert or teacher (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). As the student-teacher gains competency, the expert, mindful of student language deficits or shyness, provides feedback, with the eventual goal of leaving the small group members to ‘scaffold’ one another. Research suggest some efficacy to careful application of this social constructivist method, which is used most often in reading instruction (literature circles, for example), but can be applied to any content area in which a student-teacher can summarize, question, clarify, or predict (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). However, staunch proponents of traditional teacher-directed instruction, such as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who believe that children should be taught highly specific curricula to build foundational knowledge, caution that student-led exploration requires astute and proficient teacher supervision, or it is, at best, less effective (Hirsch, 1999).
Classroom discussion creates an environment in which students “think aloud”, allowing co-construction of understanding in their zones of proximal development (the distance between what students can do independently and what requires assistance) and achievement of greater understanding. When deep discussion occurs, it affords students the opportunity to agree, disagree, and mutually critique reasoning, capitalizing on the social nature of learning (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). Unfortunately, whole-class discussion can also create an environment of vulnerability (especially for the introvert or those with poor language skills), requiring vigilance on the part of the teacher in order to promote civility during discussion without squelching discourse (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). One effective discussion method, aligning with the philosophies of both Piaget and Vygotsky, that acknowledges the highly social nature of learning and reduces the potential for teasing, ridicule, and vulnerability is Socratic Seminar (Holden, 2002). Named for Socrates’ philosophy of inquiry, these seminars prize discussion over debate and questioning over recitation of information (Holden, 2002; Socratic Seminar, 2013). However, the effectiveness of these seminars in a constructivist classroom lies in the requisite establishment of ground rules for equal participation, justification of thinking, and respectful turn taking; a clear definition of the teacher role as neutral; and a ‘recap’ or assessment of the effectiveness of the discussion. When conducted correctly, students as young as second grade can learn to listen closely to the comments of others, think critically, question intelligently and civilly, and work cooperatively (Holden, 2002).
Ultimately, the constructivist classroom, which capitalizes on the nature of social learning and utilizes scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, and classroom discussion, can be, when conducted conscientiously by educators, an effective learning environment (Bergin & Bergin, 2002).
- Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D.A. (2013). Child and adolescent development in your classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
- Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Scaffolded writing instruction: teaching with a gradual release framework. New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.
- Hirsch, E.C., Jr., (1999). The schools we need and why we don’t have them. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
- Holden, J. (2002). Socratic seminars and inquiry teaching – an overview. Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom. 471 390, 1-9.
- Socratic Seminar. 2013. Northwest Association for Biomedical Research. Retrieved from NWABR.org. https://www.nwabr.org/sites/default/files/soc.sem.pdf
- Can you identify potential limitations of implementing the principles of the constructivist classroom model for your age group or subject area, and how would you attenuate these?
- In your own practice, how have you utilized reciprocal teaching, allowing students to take the lead in their learning, and what measures have you taken to supervise or monitor students’ exploration of ideas?
- What is one example of how you have used scaffolding to elicit a desirable emotional, social, or physical outcome from your students?
- What are some ways that you ensure respectful turn taking, justification of thinking, and equal participation when utilizing classroom discussion as a means of constructivist instruction?