Friday, August 1, 2008

Guiding children's learning

Carmen and I had the joy of taking my grandson Samuel to Featherdale Wildlife Park last Saturday. I love this little ‘zoo’ in Doonside. It’s the only place I know where you can see virtually every iconic Australian animal, get to feed and pat kangaroos, koalas, wombats etc and let little children run without too much concern. We took lots of photos (Carmen helped out here). When we were sorting through them that night Carmen pointed out the interesting sequence of photos she had taken of me trying to encourage Samuel to feed a wallaby. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves then offer a comment about the significance of the observation to how we support our children as learners.

Shot 1 - "Watch Grandad feed the wallaby". Note his position.

Shot 2 - "Would you like to try?". A tentative step forward

Shot 3 - "You hold it Sam". "Aw-right" Note my arm.

Shot 4
- "I did it!" Note his face (and mine) - success!

What the above photos show are the way an adult can support a child to take risks and learn new things. My own research and that of many others has demonstrated that there are several key processes occurring learning events such as the above. Two of these are "guided participation" and "scaffolding".

1. Guided participation

In the pictures you can see how I have been guiding Sam’s participation in the act of feeding the wallaby. You can't hear my words but there was constant conversation with Sam:
  • coaxing;
  • reassuring;
  • verbally prodding him forward.
There was also physical contact - he needed to know that Grandad was there helping.

I also demonstrated the task and segmented it (though you can't see precisely from these shots). There were a number of steps in between photos 2 and 4.

Barbara Rogoff suggests that guided participation is critical to children’s learning. She describes this process as the guided participation of children and others in the collaborative process of "building bridges" from children's present understanding and skills in order to reach new understandings and skills. This in turn requires "the arranging and structuring of children's participation in activities" in some way. I wanted Sam to experience the wallaby up close and I wanted him to be brave enough to try to feed it himself. Alone he would just have watched but with my support he eventually did it and learned new things.

2. Scaffolded support

Jerome Bruner developed the term “scaffolding” that describes in a more specific way what was going on in this learning episode. The concept of "scaffolding" was devised by Bruner to explain the behaviour of a tutor helping three- and five-year-old children to build a pyramid out of interlocking wooden blocks. He concluded that the act of scaffolding that he observed was a process whereby an adult helped children by doing what the child could not do at first, and allowing students to slowly take over parts of the process as they were able to do so. The adult controlled the focus of attention, demonstrated the task, segmented the task and so on. While in my work I consider in more detail how children also direct attention and take some control of their own learning, this is a level of discussion that isn’t needed in this instance.

Once again, you can see this demonstrated in the photos above.

Implications for parents and teachers?

There are many implications from the work of researchers like Rogoff and Bruner that have direct application to the type of support that adults (both parents and teachers) give to children every day. The type of support that is shown in the photos is quite similar to the type of support we give to children as they learn language, explore their world, attempt new gross motor tasks (walking, riding a bike etc) and so on. Two key factors in learning are the quality of support adults provide and the encouragement we give children to become risk takers.

For anyone who wants a more detailed discussion I have included a section of one of my books on my website (here) and of course you could source the book itself (here).


Nicole said...

Those photos are very cute of little Sam - and illustrate the point too, of course!

Prue said...

My son is not a risk taker. He is incredibly cautious with many things. And therefore his first answer to doing something new or slightly hard is "I can't" and he won't even try. My problem is even if I show him how to do it, he never wants to join in, and so I end up doing it all. This includes something as simple as drawing a picture. Any suggestions on how to draw him in to the activity?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Prue, I know the type. Kids do vary in the extent to which they are risk takers. Encouraging him to take risks can be helped in the following ways:

* Make sure that what you're asking him to do isn't too hard.
* Demonstrate the task - kids need to see how others do things (that's what I did with Sam.
* Structure the way the task is presented - Sam isn't a natural risk taker in all things. As we moved around I gave up on getting him to touch the geese, the Mopoke and other birds (he likes them but seemed quite scared of them). The photos don't show how I moved from feeding a big kangaroo, then a wallaby, then a young (cute) wallaby.
* Sometimes break the task down - I could have stopped at getting him to throw some feed; I could have just tried to get him to pat a wallaby etc.
* Provide security when they are attempting the task - you can see in the photos how there was contact with Sam (he needed to know I was there - he was safe).

The above don't just apply to animal feeding, there are parallels when encouraging children to read, run, ride a bike, use scissors, talk etc.

Hope this helps, let me know. I'm happy to write another post on this later if you'd like.

Prue said...

Thanks Trevor. I'll see if I can work on this. It's not going to be a magic click-your-fingers-and-its-fixed thing!