Wood et al - Contingent Tutoring and Scaffolding

Scaffolding - What is it?

Scaffolding can be described as the adult assistance given to a child that enables them to solve a problem, complete a task or achieve a goal. The adult controls aspects of the task which are initially beyond the learner (Wood et al, 1976). Wood et al over 3 papers in the late 1970s looked to develop a theory of how the role of a tutor actually works and the best way a parent or teacher can provide support for their child whilst allowing them to learn for themselves. The aim would be that with effective tutoring the learner may develop enough task competence to complete the task unassisted.

Main reference - Wood, D., Bruner,J. & Ross, G. (1976) "The role of tutoring in problem solving" Journal of child psychiatry vol.17 pp.89-100

The activity of the instructor and the child can be represented as a programme of action where the steps needed to complete the task are shared between them. The instructor has to decide how many tasks the child can cope with. They argue that instructions should fit in with the child's present interests and abilities.

Recognition-production gap - Wood et al relate this theory as to how the tutor decided what the child is ready for. It is thought to be essential that the child understands the task before they are able to carry it out. However it is thought that initially many children can recognize the task goal but are unable to produce the appropriate steps in order to obtain it and therefore the recognition-production gap appears.

Wood et al argue that the child should be asked to add one extra operation or decision to what they are already capable of at a time. Presumably this is to keep pushing the child forward but not with too much as this may lead to confusion. Mothers who adapt their response on the basis of the child's earlier responses are most likely to have an effectively performing child.

How scaffolding works -  Scaffolding should begin by  luring the child into actions which he recognises will lead to the solution, therefore closing the recognition-production gap. Once that is done the tutor interprets any discrepancies to the child. Finally the tutor acts in a confirmatory role until the child can do it himself. This can be seen in more detail below.

The scaffolding process

What makes a good tutor? - Wood et al argue that a good tutor will communicate verbally as much as possible and intervene more directly only when the child fails to follow instructions. They also believe that a gentle, appreciative approach will leave the child eager to complete instructions. Of course the type of tutoring given depends on the age and ability of the child. In one of their studies when comparing 3-5 year olds problem solving abilities it was found the youngest children needed to most direct help, whilst the oldest were capable of working away by themselves. This leads to the question of is one type of teaching appropriate for all? On the evidence on Wood et als work it would appear the tutor is required to play different roles for different children and therefore must be able to adapt accordingly.

Contingent Tutoring - What is it?

Contingent tutoring is argued by Wood et al to be the most successful way of tutoring. It relates to what was said above about giving a child a task one level above what they are currently capable of. This will lead to a success/failure boundary. or 'region of sensitivity' to instruction. If the child succeeds at this next level then next time offer less help. However if they fail, next time take more control. The contingent approach ensures that any specific verbal instructions are referred directly to a pattern of behaviour. The aim of the approach is that the child will never succeed too easily or fail too often. They argue that a contingent use of both verbal and non-verbal instructions lies at the heart of effective instruction. The five levels of intervention that contingent tutors are said to make use of are displayed below

The way in which the tutor uses these levels becomes contingent on the child's success or failure at any one stage.

In a study by Wood et al in 1978 those children whose tutor's had used this contingent approach were the most active and efficient and were able to perform the majority of the task alone after construction.

Main reference - Wood, D., Wood, H. & Middleton, D. (1978) "An experimental evaluation of four face-to-face teaching strategies" Int. j. of behavioral development vol.1 pp.131-147.

What is the main point and are Wood et al correct?

The three papers looked at here concerned conceptualizing tutoring in a way which could benefit people for years to come. The most important point to come out of this appears to be that in both scaffolding and contingent tutoring you have to take an individual approach. No one way will work for everybody. Both processes rely on waiting until the child understands what they are doing and not just showing them straight away as this will lead to no comprehension of what was done or what it means, leaving the child unable to carry this action out for themselves. It could be argued that Wood et al are right in that the ability of the child and a willingness to learn will all be important in how to best teach them. The tutor therefore should let the child make all the mistakes it needs to, but be willing and able to pick up the pieces in a gentle way and explain what went wrong and how to correct it. Therefore leaving the child confident and happy in going forward and not always relying on having someone there instructing them. However, these approaches just may not be practical in the real world, waiting for each individual child to pick up things at their own pace and guiding them all in their individual stages may be idealistic, but also impractical in a time where class sizes are larger and teachers are spread thinly. Perhaps it is the parents then who need to implement these approaches from early on, to teach the child to work for themselves but ask for help if necessary. Installing key problem solving techniques from an early age can only be beneficial for the child.

Additional Reference

Wood, D. & Middleton, D. (1975) "A study of assisted problem-solving" British j. of psychology vol.66 no.2 pp.181-191