Learning is sometimes thought of as a solitary endeavor. A student attends class where a professor lectures and demonstrates accounting problems, and then the student attempts to replicate or extend the demonstration by completing homework assignments. Student learning is then assessed through testing. This column introduces another perspective on teaching and learning: scaffolding.
A student who is a more passive receiver of transmitted knowledge will not necessarily develop the critical thinking or learning skills needed in a world of complex problems. An alternate approach is based on sociocultural learning theories, specifically the work of Lev S. Vygotsky and educators who built upon his work.
Vygotsky’s theory of learning is based on what he calls the zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD “is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”1 In other words, ZPD represents the potential learning that a student can achieve only after receiving assistance from others. He distinguishes between actual development level and what can be done independently (which is what is typically assessed), and instead suggests “what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.”2 What a student can do with assistance today, he or she will be able to do independently in the future.
In this model, collaboration with peers is an essential element of extending a student’s performance. Vygotsky characterized learning as occurring at two levels: between people, then inside the person. Learning occurs when students work together, as they think and talk about what they are doing and learn to recognize what they do not know. Over time, the thought processes developed in a social context are internalized and become part of the student’s independent achievement.
Scaffolding is a teaching method that grew out of Vygotsky’s work. Like a scaffold used in building to access difficult-to-reach areas, in teaching scaffolding refers to a structure that a professor provides to support a student through an activity. The role of the teacher involves circulating through the room and guiding collaborative groups through hints, directed questions, and clarification. The method helps students develop problem-solving skills as they think through problems collaboratively.
Roland G. Tharp and Ronald Gallimore3 suggest a number of methods of assisting/scaffolding instruction, including modeling, contingency management, and feeding back.
Modeling is probably the most commonly used scaffolding method in accounting classrooms, although professors might not recognize it as such when they demonstrate how to solve a problem. As a scaffolding technique, problem demonstration is followed by an opportunity for students to imitate, working in groups, to solve a similar problem. Practice, rather than simple observation, is the key. Imitation is not simple mimicry, but rather an opportunity for students to use strategies similar to those demonstrated in a related-problem context.
Contingency feedback is a means of assisting performance by providing encouragement (or discouragement) for observed behaviors. In a higher education context, contingency feedback is provided when a professor circulates through the room and, when attention is drifting, redirects the group back to the task.
Feeding back is something built into education as student performance is typically assessed through tests, scores, grades, and so on. However, there needs to be some specific standards against which performance can be compared, otherwise feeding back will not serve as performance assistance. Grading rubrics given in advance of a task provide scaffolding, and feedback on performance is then given based on the rubric.
When students are given more complex assignments, consider providing scaffolding assistance in structuring the task. For example, when asked to research a complex accounting policy issue, students need specific guidance in the steps of the research process (such as understand the industry, define the problem, etc.).
Scaffolding in a collaborative learning environment means that faculty give up some control of the classroom because students working in groups will be working at their own pace. However, this type of instruction allows students to experience success in problem-solving before moving to unfamiliar material, and it can create a much more engaged classroom for both faculty and students.
1 Lev S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 86.
2 Op cit, p. 85.
3 R. G. Tharp and R. Gallimore, Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling in Social Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1988.
Mary Jeanne Welsh, CPA, PhD, is a professor of accounting and department chair at La Salle University in Philadelphia and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NOLAtoPhilly.