Social constructivism suggests that language learning is based on our interactions with others in particular contexts. This means that language does not exist as an abstract entity, but is shaped and altered, depending on the context and the people we interact with. The main elements of social constructivism theory include the idea that learners are actively involved in the process of learning and creating meaning, they use existing skills to interpret language, and they construct their own understandings through their interactions with others. It is a theory developed mainly in the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.
This article will look at how the main principles of his views can be applied to modern language learning using online self-paced platforms. This includes critical ideas such as (1) the zone of proximal development, (2) scaffolding, and (3) the social construction of knowledge.
The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is an idea proposed by Vygotsky which suggests that the best learning occurs when an individual is challenged but not overwhelmed. The tasks should be just beyond the learner’s capabilities but should be possible to achieve with sufficient guidance and collaboration. Language learners should be presented with materials that are adjusted to their skill level, but should not be presented with materials that are too difficult or too easy. Establishing the right level of challenge is critical if the student is to operate in the zone of proximal development.
Scaffolding is another key idea when it comes to language learning. It is the concept that learning should be supported by guidance from an expert or more knowledgeable person. Learning takes place in the zone of proximal development. The support is gradually reduced as it slowly becomes unnecessary. The goal is that the student will be able to complete tasks independently after this tapering-off support process is completed.
Within the context of a language learning platform, scaffolding can be achieved by using easy exercise types like drag-and-drop or categorising, before using more challenging exercises like fill-the-gap-writing, where students have to come up with the word phrase on their own. In a guided-practice exercise, the student is provided with all the elements they will need. In independent-application tasks, some elements are retained, or prompts are provided, but the students will have to do most of it on their own. This leads on to production tasks where students will have to provide 100% of the material on their own. This learning cycle can be repeated again and again, as students build on their knowledge of new language, functions and structure.
Ideally, an online learning platform should adapt to the learners and provide customized content. This adaptive system would involve customized learning tracks and possibly, AI feedback. An adaptive platform would always ensure that learners operate in the zone of proximal development and always feel challenged enough to stay motivated and engaged. The platform would react to how the student performs in the system, and provide them with material suited to their individual needs according to their proximal zone of learning.
Another type of scaffolding is supplying students with enhanced feedback, where they receive detailed tips for negative answers. This “hidden teacher” gives the illusion that the learning system is providing scaffolded support. Tips and hints allow the learner to gain insights into their progress and be provided with what feels like more individualized guidance. This is not as sophisticated as adaptive learning but could give the students a more scaffolded learning experience.
Finally, social construction of knowledge, which is the key concept proposed by Vygotsky, suggests that learning and understanding of a language are based on interaction with others. In digital, language learning platforms, this concept can be implemented by providing learners with the opportunity to connect and communicate in the same way they do in social media. This encourages collaboration and helps to foster a deeper understanding of the language used in the students’ community of practice.
It is possible to do this online by creating writing or speaking tasks that require students to give peer feedback to other students doing the same task. This allows students to interact with each other and engage in authentic language use. This is more focused on the active role that the learner takes in their own learning, in collaboration with others, which is the main goal of social constructivism. Students share their experiences in the target language community, gaining a strong sense of belonging in the process. Ways to achieve this in your online platform are:
- a quiz where students’ answers are compared with other students.
- an online discussion forum that is set up for a specific task.
- a blog entry in students’ personalized online space.
- a post on a social platform
These activities belong mainly to the production section of the lesson where language structures are produced freely without scaffolding. This is the most active part of the lesson. For technical reasons, this is hard to achieve in a self-paced platform and is easier to implement in the face-to-face or online classroom. In the classroom, the teacher can use case studies, discussions, presentations, role plays and other communicative tasks to facilitate communication. In the self-paced, digital learning space, this is much harder to achieve. However, it is an essential element to increase engagement and retention in online learning. A self-paced learning system without production tasks is less effective.
In summary, constructivism provides valuable insight into the process of language learning. By applying the key ideas of Vygotsky to the use of online language learning platforms, learners can gain access to materials that are tailored to their level and receive guidance and feedback in an environment that encourages collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Header Image by Talpa from Pixabay
The ZPD image is licensed under the creative commons and can be found here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zone_of_proximal_development.svg
“An adaptive platform would always ensure that learners operate in the zone of proximal development and always feel challenged enough to stay motivated and engaged.”
It seems to me that a corollary of this is that depending on the level of motivation the learner has, they may or may not remain engaged operating outside their zone of proximal development. An example of this might be in a program of reading real books, students who are very interested in the subject of, say, dinosaurs may read and learn from a book way beyond their level for easy reading as proposed by Extensive Reading theory. I should add that this is in no way a criticism of that theory, which I have applied throughout the 45 years I taught EFL.
So, in a sense, Vygotsky’s theory applies particularly to learners with a normal or lower level of motivation, which is probably like most learners!