Scaffolding Children’s Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education

Published in: School Psychology International. (1998). Vol. 19, #2, pp. 189-191.

Book review: Laura E. Berk & Adam Winsler. (1995). Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education. National Association for the Young Children. Washington, DC.

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.

Over the past two decades there has been a major upsurge of interest in Lev Vygotsky's ideas as promising alternatives to existing psychoeducational theories and practices. According to ERIC (Educational Resource Information Center, managed by the US Department of Education) there are currently three times as many citations of Vygotskian research as Piagetian research. Literally dozens of books, article and book chapters were published during this decade, interpreting, elaborating and expanding Vygotsky's scientific legacy. Lev Vygotsky become a powerful "identification figure" in developmental psychology, psycholinguistic, in education, school psychology, in special education, and now, with the publication of this book - in early childhood education as well. The book under review, however, is not just one more publication "about Vygotsky"; it is unique in its focus on early childhood and in its relevance to everyday practice of the education and upbringing of young children within the Vygotskian's framework. The book consists of seven chapters and meticulously crafted technical support: references, resources, glossary and author/ subject index.

In Chapter l the authors provided a brief overview of Vygotsky's life, the social/historical context in which his ideas emerged, and factors influencing the spread of his works in the West. They concluded with a condensed summary of his main ideas. According to the authors, what has made Vygotsky the focus of attention was a powerful trend away from the biologically-based understanding of human behavior to the social/cultural explanation of human activity. The value of Vygotsky's works is found in the fact that he discovered the connecting links between sociocultural processes taking place in society, and mental processes taking place in the individual. This chapter is a good introduction for those colleagues who are interested in the topic and want to be familiar with the basic of Vygotsky's theory.

Chapter ll deals with the central idea in Vygotsky's theory: the social origin of individual mental functioning and language as the critical link between the social and the psychological planes of human functioning. The formation of individual abilities takes place through relations with others: it is socially meaningful activity that shapes an individual makeup. The fundamental way in which a child's higher mental functions are formed is the use of "psychological tools" in "mediated activities" shared with an adult or more competent peer. As the child gains mastery of "psychological tools", he/she gains access to intentional regulation of his/her behavior. Vygotskian analysis of children's private speech as the primer mechanism of self-regulation is the most powerful argument in this chapter.

Chapter 3 discusses the significance of children's make-believe (imaginative) play in the process of socialization and development. Imaginative play, according to Vygotsky, is the leading educational activity of the preschool years. In accordance with the Vygotsky's paradigm, authors analyzed pedagogical techniques scaffolding children's play.

Chapter lV is titled: "Children with Serious Learning and Behavior Problems." I was in particular pleased that the authors have included a chapter on disabilities in their book. Vygotsky's contribution in the field of special education has not yet been fully appreciated in the West and this chapter will promote an understanding of this part of Vygotsky's scientific legacy. Authors discussion underscores Vygotsky's idea of social inclusion of handicapped children into the social/cultural life of their community as a condition of effective rehabilitation and compensation. I wish L. Berk and A. Winsler clarified their position regarding "mainstreaming without restrictions" or "full inclusion" more. It is my understanding that Vygotsky never wrote or implied that handicapped children should attend the same school/classes or be subjected to the same curriculum as their non-handicapped peers; he insisted on creating a learning environment which would supply disabled students with alternative means of communication and development, on using those "psychological tools" that are most appropriate to compensate for their particular disability. A reader can find in Vygotsky's works a number of positive general declarations regarding the idea of "mainstreaming", in particular so-called "social mainstreaming". His criticism of the social isolation of handicapped students sounds very much up-to-date. Nevertheless, Vygotsky was convinced that only a truly differentiated learning environment can fully develop a handicapped child's higher psychological functions and overall personality. Special education in his vision should be a system that employs its specific methods because handicapped students require modified and alternative educational methods.

In Chapter V the authors compared Vygotsky's theory with other major approaches to child development. For years the predominant theoretical framework for early childhood care and education in this country has been Piaget's theory. In this theory, a maturation process determines cognitive competence and a child's ability to learn. Learning is an individual process and educational influence is considered as following the maturation. Contrary to this, Vygotsky considered learning as shared/joint process in a responsive social context. In a Vygotskian framework children are capable of far more competent performance when they have proper assistance from adults. Yje optimism of Vygotsky's general message, substantiated by such methodologies as "dynamic assessment", "zone of proximal development", "mediated learning", "cognitive education" among many others developed within the Vygotsky's theory, found enthusiastic resonance in American education in the 90s, reflected so masterfully in this chapter.

Chapters Vl and Vll can be read (and, probably, were written) in one breath. They consider contemporary applications of Vygotsky's theory to teaching and learning in early childhood classrooms and discuss the perspectives of Vygotsky's approach for the future. The authors talk about the importance of activity setting in which children are functioning and the nature of teacher-child and child-child discourse. In their discussion the authors turned to international experience as well, giving a Vygotskian interpretation to the famous Reggio Emilia (Italy) city-run early education program well-known for its extraordinary performance. "Dynamic assessment", inspired by Vygotsky's notion of the "zone of proximal development" is also discussed, unfortunately, too briefly. It is apparent now (with the complete failure of the standardized tests applied to 2-5 year olds) that dynamic assessment is the way to go with our preschoolers. There is a growing amount of research in this area (e.g. works of Carol Lidz) to be discussed, not only those "classical" three approaches briefly mentioned on pp 136-139. Those who are involved into early childhood problems will be absorbed by the vivid and sometimes passionate debates over academic versus child-centered programs that conclude the book.

To summarize: this book is probably the first all-around undertaking in applying Vygotsky's ideas to early childhood education. It is comprehensive, yet in-depth (chapters about children's private speech and play in particular); it is written in a clear and precise manner and will be within the professional "zone of proximal development" of many educators and school psychologists in the trenches. it is a tasteful blend of theoretical and practical material; and very much up-to-date, yet with a good historical and theoretical background so rarely found, alas, in American psychological literature. I would highly recommend this book as the "model" of Vygotskian approach.