On the Construction of a Learning Path


What is needed is not new technology, but new metaphors. James Bridle

Tom stood for a moment taking it in. Just seeing and hearing and smelling it gave him a thrill like a sunny day. As they arrived behind the cartload of stone, two more carts were leaving empty. In lean-to sheds all along the side walls of the church, masons could be seen sculpting the stone blocks, with iron chisels and big wooden hammers, into the shapes that would be put together to form plinths, columns, capitals, shafts, buttresses, arches, windows, sills, pinnacles and parapets. In the middle of the close, well away from other buildings, stood the smithy, the glow of its fire visible through the open doorway; and the clang of hammer on anvil carried across the close as the smith made new tools to replace the ones the masons were wearing down. To most people it was a scene of chaos, but Tom saw a large and complex mechanism which he itched to control. He knew what each man was doing and he could see instantly how far the work had progressed. They were building the east facade.

There was a run of scaffolding across the east end at a height of twenty-five or thirty feet.

A lesson can be built using different tools. Both simple and more complex. They are not chariots, they are not hammers or chisels. These are usually more subtle and intelligent means. After all, it is quite common in the classroom to rely on clear diagrams, illustrative maps and models, explanatory texts, focused tasks and situational questions, extension examples and exercises, functional presentations or experimental procedures. The selection of tools described in didactics textbooks is varied. Many a graduate of pedagogical studies may remember their breakdown even today; many a teacher likes to use these tools in teaching practice. Because they have proved themselves to him. Because they help pupils. As a scaffold on which to move with confidence and through which to continue the construction of pupils' knowledge and thinking.

Scaffolding as a concept transferred to the field of education has a long history. Originally a building construction, it has become the starting point for many reflections on practices that can effectively develop children's thinking and cognition. We do not spoil anything if we recall Lev Vygotsky, whose findings about the zone of proximal development set the stage for thinking of teaching aids as scaffolding. It is a matter of the unfortunate circumstances of Vygotsky's life that he did not manage to include in his writings a specific explanation of what such a teaching construct should look like. Certainly, one can encounter in the literature a variety of evaluations of this pedagogical metaphor, and even detailed examples in which the teacher acts as a scaffolder of the child's cognitive development. It is therefore not particularly necessary to revise previous findings or to replicate observations about the pedagogical significance of scaffolding. They are readily available. It may seem that the use of metaphor - when confronted with initial knowledge of a new topic - amounts to a resignation to reason. But Vygotsky's followers did just that - by thinking of the image of scaffolding by which knowledge in the broad sense is transferred from the more able or advanced to the less able. Yet it is clear that in this way they sought answers to questions that no one had yet asked, that no one had yet thoughtfully answered.

Today we have many answers to questions about the transmission of knowledge. There are many more of them and they are more detailed than when Jerome Bruner first began to develop his ideas about the function of learning scaffolding. Nevertheless, it is intellectually and pedagogically appealing to explore, or at least remind ourselves through our own efforts, in what ways the image of scaffolding is valid and useful in an educational context. The appeal of this intention is not diminished by the risk that the search for new answers to old questions may lead to familiar conclusions. The caveat that the technical functioning of real scaffolding on a real building has its own peculiarities that cannot be literally and completely transferred to an educational context is also a tolerable level of risk. Let us add that the value of reconsidering the meaning of scaffolding in education is underscored by its aim of drawing out from the metaphor the essential features of the learning journey that the teacher is to prepare for the pupils. It is to be used to lead them from the floor of actual knowledge to the level of potential development. It is possible that from such inference will emerge teaching principles that need to be kept in mind if we are to practice the teaching profession well and successfully. At the same time, new questions may emerge that need to be asked, especially in light of current or anticipated technological advances.

In the Dictionary of the Contemporary Slovak Language, under the heading scaffolding, there is a clear definition: an auxiliary temporary structure that enables construction or reconstruction work to be carried out at greater heights. The key terms that define the functional nature of scaffolding are thus: aid, temporary, constructed structure, (new) construction, reconstruction, height.

Scaffolding helps - it allows builders to move around safely; it gives them access to inaccessible parts of the building; it allows them to move building materials to the places they are building. Safe movement can be understood as the builder knowing that he can carry out work in a given part of the structure with minimal risks. In teaching practice, for example, this may be analogous to the risk associated with rejection or long-term disregard of learning activities, with one-time or chronic misunderstanding of the new, with unwillingness to revise acquired knowledge, with weakening of the will to continue learning, and so on. At the same time, it is clear that without scaffolding it would be impossible to "lift the building" to higher floors, in a figurative sense, to higher realms of thought and cognition. Thus, without scaffolding, the cognitive ground level might be accessible (e.g., the ability to remember data), but it would be impossible to reach higher floors (e.g., the ability to find analogies).

Scaffolding is temporary - the assistance that scaffolding provides to builders is limited in time. It is simply not available always and forever. When the planned construction is finished, the scaffolding is taken down and used in the construction of other buildings. In the temporal perspective of scaffolding, the point seems more or less clear: learning assistance is available especially in school, in lessons, in time-organised learning actions. At the same time, it does not mean that the removal of scaffolding ends cognition and thinking. Learning continues to happen. It continues even after competent assessors have confirmed that the building is complete and can perform all the tasks for which it was built. In pedagogical terms, this raises more than one question: when is a person's cognitive development so complete that they no longer need scaffolding to learn? What does such a person have to have in order to be able to say of him: from now on, learning is only within his competence? Or more powerfully: is a person's cognitive growth complete when they are able to build and use their own scaffolding? At this stage of the reflection, the scaffolding metaphor seems to have been extended to include a metacognitive context - in the ability to build and use one's own scaffolding, one can see one's ability to understand the processes involved in one's own thinking and cognition. This ability to understand oneself - by exploring one's own knowledge and reflecting on one's own thinking - conditions one's readiness to learn independently.

Scaffolding is a constructed structure that respects the contour of the building. Of course, it would be absurd to build scaffolding for a cathedral with crypts if the building plans outline a skyscraper with underground garages. Although the scaffolding mainly follows the building line, at the same time it adapts to the builders. Their movement should be comfortable. They should be able to reach any point of the building. If we talk about teachers as scaffolders, who are the builders?

Scaffolding consists of components that can be used on another structure after completing a task on one structure. This characteristic of scaffolding raises a number of issues: what relevance can the scaffolding component, which is commonly used by the geography teacher, take on in physics lessons? What insights can we allow pupils to reach if we give them an extract from a speech by the King of England in a foreign language class as an example of official communication and then in a history class as an image of the historical consciousness of a contemporary monarch? What discoveries can pupils make if we allow them to read the map of the region first through the eyes of a biologist and then through the eyes of Slovak insurgents during the Second World War? What thinking and communication techniques can we teach them if we ask them, before comparing poems in literature class, about the way they used to find out the similarity of triangles in mathematics class? What challenges should we confront students with in ethics education to help them go beyond their current cognitive capacities in literature education as well? What might be the value of a learning principle in which we encourage students to recall their current knowledge in one learning domain before learning something new in another? How will this principle be reflected in the effectiveness of learning something new? How will it be reflected in pupils' ability to understand information and concepts, to explain them correctly, in different contexts or even quickly? Finally, what effect will the thinking skills thus built have on the knowledge that is supposed to protect a person from, among other things, deliberate denigration, mental mutilation, or uncritical acquiescence to superficial attitudes and extreme beliefs?

The image of scaffolding can also have its pedagogical significance when considering the reconstruction of an existing building, i.e. when renewing established knowledge and reviving learned thought processes. The key point is that when a cathedral or a skyscraper was built, a scaffolding was already standing - at the time when these objects were built. The scaffolding construction must be repeated during the reconstruction. It can thus be inferred that scaffolding should also be present in the learning repetition of once acquired knowledge or once mastered thought and communication practices. Neither the reconstruction of the building nor the repetition of what has been learned should be an end in itself. In the first case it would be a waste of money, in the second case a waste of time that is intended for learning. The renovation of a building is usually about adapting an old building into a new form, while the learning repetition should be about engaging familiar concepts and facts in new relationships and contexts. Knowledge and practices that were once established as new are not only refreshed but also functionally expanded by classroom repetition - high school students typically come to understand the conflict of the tragedy Antigone in their first year, and it is highly likely that a return to the play's dramatic text will contribute to their interpretation of the drama Till the Rooster Crows in their third year. This expectation can be generalised: if learning in the first year was supported by an interpretive text, in the third year the learning outcomes can be reconstructed by means of a clear diagram. If in the first semester the learning was based on a clear scheme, in the second semester the acquired competences can be enlivened by targeted questions in dialogue and so on. It can then be deduced that teaching practice should not only have scaffolding in building new knowledge, but also in reviving (bringing to life) what was once acquired.

An interesting point is that scaffolding has at least one common feature in both new and renovated buildings - it is always anchored to the building. In order for scaffolding to serve its function, it has to be anchored to the building, so to speak. Otherwise it would be unstable and dangerous. For the scaffolder of pupils' cognitive development, this may imply the imperative that both the direction of teaching and the difficulty of tasks should be based on a precise knowledge of the pupils' current cognitive profile. In short: the aim of teaching is primarily the development of pupils and significantly less the "learning" of the material - the material is the tool, not the goal. This confusion of tool and goal seems to be behind the educational horse race in our schools (we have to rush because we missed this or that, because we are late for Antigone or existentialism). Incidentally, the aptness of the scaffolding metaphor is precisely complemented by the circumstance that scaffolding vertically outpaces building - just as Vygotsky's classic thesis expresses it: good learning outpaces development.

Through good teaching, students' cognition and thinking can be brought to a really high level. And it doesn't have to be an ambition to study on the high floors of universities. It is quite sufficient to give our pupils solid support in their efforts to read with comprehension as well as in their efforts to argue correctly, in their interest in experiment and hypothesis testing, in their need to understand their own motivation or to formulate personal goals, and so on.

In the spirit of the initial parable, the school can indeed be imagined as a chaotic construction site. The scaffolders in charge should both see and know how to plan the tasks involved in building dozens or hundreds of learning pathways on this site. These give them the chance to assist in the construction of hundreds, even thousands of cognitive buildings from the ground up to the highest possible floor. It may sound like a paradox, but it is quite likely that if teachers can guide their students to explore and think high, no one - the students themselves, their parents, and society - will want to look down on them.

Karel Dvořák - DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


BRIDLE, James. New Dark Age. Technology and the End of the Future. London : Verso 2018

BRUNER, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge : Harvard University Press 1986

FOLLETT, Ken. The Pillars of the Earth. London : Pan Macmillan 2017

KRATOCHVÍL, Viliam. Metafora stromu ako model didaktiky dejepisu. Bratislava : Dr. Josef Raabe Slovensko 2019

VYGOTSKIJ, Lev Semjonovič. Psychologie myšlení a řeči. Praha : Portál 2004