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Learning theories guiding outdoor education: Scaffolding

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Education-2nd Edition by Ken Gilbertson,Alan Ewert,Pirkko Siklander & Timothy Bates.

Instructional scaffolding is similar to constructivism because it is a means to building on previous learning to achieve the next level of learning. It is a teaching method that was formulated by a psychologist named Lev Vygotsky in the mid-1970s as he researched childhood development and how children learn, and he coined the term scaffolding. He was also a strong proponent that community is important in learning because that’s how one makes meaning of what one is being taught. The community piece includes the other students, not just the teacher. Thus, the idea of students learning from other students is included within instructional scaffolding. In short, collaboration is an important part of learning, according to Vygotsky (Sarikas 2020).

Vygotsky described the concept that learners have a “zone of proximal development” (ZPD; figure 3.2). The ZPD illustrates how the learner possesses a range of knowledge, skills, and experience. To progress from what the student knows they scaffold their skills and knowledge, utilizing new experiences and collaboration with other students and the teacher to expand their learning development. The outer ring of the ZPD indicates learning that is presently beyond what the learner can do or knows. Thus, as students grow and learn, they continually strive to expand their ZPD. As an instructor, you are continually striving to expand your students’ ZPD by using methods that challenge their learning through new experiences and building a positive learning community.

Figure 3.2 Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and scaffolding.
Figure 3.2 Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and scaffolding.

For example, say a novice student is learning how to be comfortable in the outdoors. They know it is important to stay dry when it is wet, but they do not yet have the experience and knowledge of the outdoors to determine what kind of rain gear to use or when to put the rain gear on. In spite of the instructor telling them what kind of rain gear to use (not plastic) and when to put on the rain gear (before it starts raining), they still tend to wait until they are wet before they put it on. Yet, with the instructor’s help, they can learn how to read the weather (dark rain clouds approaching) and put the rain gear on before they are wet because this skill is within their ZPD. It would have taken them much longer to learn this skill on their own along with experiencing being cold and wet, but it is still simple enough that they can understand it if they have someone to explain it to them. The student’s ZPD includes knowing that it is uncomfortable to be wet, and the teacher helps them learn that staying dry means staying comfortable while outdoors. This is scaffolding. This theory of learning is very similar to the theory of how a learner constructs knowledge.

The teacher translates the lesson into a variety of practice sessions. For example, in the common outdoor lesson of navigation scaffolding is applied as follows:

  • Begin by identifying the tools used to successfully navigate in an outdoor setting (map and compass).
  • Beginning with the map, guide your students to identify the features of the map. Some will be intuitive so your students can build on what they already know (e.g., blue is water; green is forest).
  • Guide students to orient the map so they can identify where they are at and identify an obvious feature as they look up from the map (practice).
  • Guide students to walk to key features on the ground using the map (practice).
  • Introduce the parts of a compass.
  • Teach students how to orient the compass to a primary feature outdoors (practice).
  • Have students practice walking to land features using the compass (practice).
  • Guide them to orient the compass to the map. Remind students to first orient the map as they already learned.
  • Guide students on a route to now practice using the map and compass together and to explore (practice).
More Excerpts From Outdoor Education 2nd Edition