According to Vygotsky, higher mental functions, including the ability to direct memory and attention in a purposeful way and to think in symbols, are mediated behaviors. Mediated externally by culture, these and other behaviors become internalized in the learner’s mind as psychological tools. In assisted learning, or mediated learning, the teacher is the cultural agent who guides instruction so that students will master and internalize the skills that permit higher cognitive functioning. The ability to internalize cultural tools relates to the learner’s age or stage of cognitive development. Once acquired, however, internal mediators allow greater self-mediated learning.
In practical terms, scaffolding might include giving students more structure at the beginning of a set of lessons and gradually turning responsibility over to them to operate on their own (Palincsar, 1986; Rosenshine & Meister, 1992, 1994). For example, students can be taught to generate their own questions about material they are reading. Early on, the teacher might suggest the questions, modeling the kinds of questions students might ask, but students later take over the question generating task.
Research has measured parents’ use of scaffolding while helping fifth-graders with math homework. Researchers measured the degree to which adults shifted their level of intervention to fit the child’s zone of proximal development. When the child is having difficulty, the adult who stays within this region increases his or her directiveness just enough to provide support but not so much as to take over the task, then reduces directiveness when the child begins to succeed. Findings revealed that make use of this principle predicted gains in children’s learning of mathematics. A later section in this chapter describes reciprocal teaching, a method that uses scaffolding in just this way. Scaffolding is closely related to cognitive apprenticeship; experts working with apprentices typically engage them in complex tasks and then give them decreasing amounts of advice and guidance over time.