Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development
In education, we have learned to scaffold the learning process for our children in order to create a more effective teaching environment. Scaffolding is the belief that in certain instances some elements of a skill are beyond the current ability of the learner, and the only way for him to be successful is to complete only the parts of the skill within his range of competence. Once he has succeeded with the portions within his capabilities, a teacher can add more complexity to acquire more facets of the skill. To accomplish this, teachers will build scaffolds of support around the educational process. In other words, they break down more complex skills or tasks into easier and smaller chunks, support the learning with specific instruction, continually creating an educational feedback loop, and then make it more complex as the learner progresses.
For instance, in math, we don’t do addition on day one of kindergarten and jump to multiplication on day two. It is a process of breaking it down into basic components such as counting, skip counting, grouping, and working from there into more advanced math. Acquiring advanced math skills is done through layering in the complexity as a learner progresses. Start simple, get complex, support them along the way.
In addition to scaffolding, there is an entire segment of education that subscribes to Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). Most educators who value development at least understand the ZPD. A simple definition of ZPD is the distance between a learner’s actual development as determined by his ability to independently solve a problem and his potential development as determined through problem solving under the guidance of an adult or a peer. In other words, the ZPD is a child’s ability to learn a skill on his own compared to his ability to learn it with help from coaches and teammates. When a child is frustrated or beyond his limitations, adult support (or scaffolding) is vital to the process. They need us to help them learn, and we have to be a part of the process from the beginning. This doesn’t happen during tests, but during daily lessons. ZPD won’t happen a game. It needs to be included in the training sessions. Mandating game-based rules for development is akin to changing the tests without advising the teachers.
In the ZPD, the player receives a boost to assist learning via adults and peers in training and games. If the educational process has been scaffolded by reducing to basic, simple chunks and then increasing complexity and adding constraints, skill acquisition should be at its maximum. Add in the assistance of well-trained adults and more advanced peers, and learning should be profound. They learned with the help of others. That kind of help is nearly impossible in game situation as also it would be impossible during a test. (Unless it is a practice test. We could make all games “training matches” and allow coaches to use a specified number of “freezes” and “restarts with success” in order to scaffold the learning in a constrained environment).
So why use scaffolding and ZPD to explain potential outcomes from field/roster size changes?
Well, firstly, in a review of field sizes from other countries, there are varying opinions. Some countries with advanced soccer cultures and vast components of natural free play already ingrained in the children have small field sizes like ours. In some other countries, they accommodated for lack of “innate” skills by making the field sizes are a bit larger for young players (I say “innate” in quotes because the children had not already developed certain technical proficiencies and many people attribute this to some innate skill instead of realizing it was developed away from the watchful eyes of adults).
In countries where children only play when “at soccer”, they are given more space to explore, be creative, and have more time on the ball. This seems to go hand in hand with the concept of scaffolding. Other countries provided a simpler game, with more space to make mistakes, and typically create playing situations that are supported by adults to maximize skill acquisition. When they introduce games like futsal, it is at a point when learning has been deepened enough for the player to handle the “complexity”. In other words, I have chatted with friends in other countries who say “we just let them play with space and time until they acquire the valuable skills”.
We should not place 8 year-old children on a 120×75 field. That would open up an entirely different can of worms for debate. Kids forced to play by adult rules with adult-sized conditions is definitely an issue. We need smaller than full-size fields, but based on educational theory, we may have made the field too small. Here is why:
If we are scaffolding the learning, we need to reduce the complexity and the constraints. In soccer, complexity would arise with more numbers and less space. There are more bodies in a small space. Without competence and confidence, the children will panic. They will see too much chaos. It’s like handing a child Tolstoy at age 5 instead of “See Jane Run” to teach reading. That very large, very complex text is a bit much for a new learner. We may want to start with simple words, phrases, and sentences.
A now smaller field than they were formerly used to with 2 more players on it is a bit overwhelming for our children. We changed the parameters in the middle of the learning process! Players used to the old format will become very adept at throw ins and goal kicks more so than dribbling in tight spaces because when faced with stressors beyond our control, we revert to what is most comfortable…boot it. Our children may overcome the constraints of a smaller field by releasing the responsibility of keeping the ball. A new reader can’t be forced to read Tolstoy yet. He will simply give up and say “I don’t know how to read”. A young player probably can’t be forced to have great feet by being placed in a tight space with a lot of people trying to take that ball. He will most likely give up and say “I’m not the dribbling type”.
We also added constraints instead of removing them with the smaller fields and more players. We created space, time, and number constraints in the game with this situation. The children have less space, more players, and definitely less time with the ball.
Literature says to remove constraints until there is a level of proficiency, and then slowly add constraints back to deepen the learning process. In other words, strip the game down to “simple” and then make it more complex. A simple learning environment that scaffolds their player development would be to lower numbers in a slightly larger space. Let them have some success without the constraints, add constraints slowly, let them have more success, continue to make it more complex as they learn. This is how we teach reading: phonics, hunks and chunks, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, small texts, books. Shouldn’t teaching a complex sport follow a similar path (notice I said complex and not complicated. Soccer is complex with many variables, constant motion, multiple solutions to each problem, and so on. Reading at first is complex too, but we break it down to make it easier to progress).
Granted, those other countries typically have a very healthy “street soccer” culture where children are exploring, learning, developing in a ZPD with peers and no game pressure. Those games will sometimes have way too many players in too small a space but those were constraints the kids added as they built confidence. It is also a “stress free” learning environment where they can explore at their pace. You will notice, if you have ever watched a chaotic “street game”, the “weaker” players will soon select out and place themselves into new games where they can find success and are more comfortable. They choose their level of learning and create an environment to fit it. They can’t do that in structured, adult-led games. There is no walking off the field to start a new game with fewer constraints. They will just boot it every time it comes to them so they don’t have to be exposed. If they don’t keep the ball, they won’t get humiliated.
In education they would talk of the student who would conveniently have to go to the bathroom every time his turn to read came around. He would count the kids before him and wait for the appropriate moment so he could duck out and not have to read in front of everyone. Many teachers used to insist on large group, public reading, with ALL levels of readers together. Some students realized humiliation was not for them. The new methods are to ability group readers in small groups or even one on one so they can work at their level without public humiliation.
This is what happens naturally in free play with children. They will ability group so they can find success and learn the game. If we are mixing skills (no matter how hard we try to ability group, having a field of 14 players will reveal some “weak spots”), players who are “out of their depth” will simply “duck out” when their turn to have the ball arrives. They will boot it and try to disappear. They also won’t improve technical skills.
We have “street ball” in basketball here. We have seen what a vast free play sport culture can create. Players come to us with creativity, technical proficiency, and courage to fail because they played a lot on the playgrounds. They are already competent and confident when we begin “formally instructing” them. We can then mandate development principles to hone their game. We can turn the “playground player” into a “collegiate superstar”.
We don’t have kids playing soccer 5 hours a day on their own. We are cramming free play, learning, and games into one narrow experience.
Given our field and roster size changes children will be placed in tight spaces with more numbers. We know some coaches will game the system by taking the biggest, strongest, fastest players and “running over the top of the skilled ones.”
This isn’t an indictment of coaches. Everyone knows those clubs and coaches that put winning first and will take the biggest, strongest fastest to game the system. A team needs both carnivores and herbivores, but some coaches will choose one or the other. A coach who loads the team with the carnivores and then teaches a kick and run style so he can score 10 goals a game and win the league title is not doing anyone a favor. They exist, though, and we make them better at their game when we add multiple constraints to the system for the skill players. If you take those carnivores but teach them the beautiful game, you are a rare avis, but you still have to contend with the “faulty coaching” in the system. These mandates may serve those “win at all cost coaches” and the expense of those focused on development.
If that is the case, we may not have an ideal learning environment. In other countries where futsal is played, they play it for the beauty of the game. They don’t pic the big, fast, strong to win. They pick the right mix of skilled and athletically inclined players who can learn the game at that pace. Amazing technical ability is developed in fustal arenas because the variables in the equation create a development environment. Here, we want to win, not develop. So a few things will happen.
- Some coaches will take advantage. They will recruit the biggest, fastest, strongest players and “swamp” teams trying to preach skill and player development. They will simply run over those trying to build players and win on athleticism and not on properly playing the game. Again, we won’t become more comfortable on the ball at all. We will drive away those with inherent talent (70% burnout rate) and create long ball players. (You think this is bad, just wait for the Blue Line. I have already sat in on many high-level discussions regarding the implications of the Blue Line for “win at all costs” coaches.
- Those teams attempting to adhere to a player development model will be faced with a lot of failure. Every time they try to possess the ball, the space and time will be too tight for any kind of success. Children need some successes. They need to effectively complete tasks in order for the learning to “stick”. If every time they try to possess the ball they are dispossessed because of lack and space and time, they will stop trying the method that fails. They will find something that “works”. Guess what, booting the ball the first moment it comes to you works in this situation. It is a bit counterproductive to development.
My opinion is we need to give them a little more space and time to acquire skills. They need to try the skills in a scaffolded environment that includes assistance from coaches and peers to succeed. A smaller field with more players will simply not scaffold anything or create a ZPD. Coaches will be frustrated and not boosting learning, peers will be panicked and yelling, parents will be questioning little Johnny about every move he made, the pressure will be very high with very little assistance to learn. A little more space would increase their ability to acquire the skill, have some success, get confident and increase risk behaviors. Then we could layer in constraints such as smaller space or less time or more players as we go. We could introduce games like futsal after we have guaranteed learning the simplest chunks of technical skills.
I know, the answer is, “that is a coach’s job in training. That is where the learning should happen”. I would agree, but I don’t see that always being the case.
We can learn more in game situations, with adult assistance. The game is akin to tests in school. We practice math all week to take the test on Friday. That tests helps us hone our skill, applies some pressure to learn under, and provides feedback we can’t get in practice alone. We need that week of practice that prepares us for the tests, but we have yet to provide resources to our coaches to assist them with this learning environment. Everyone wants to share drills in Twitter, but no one wants to talk about educational theory, performance mentality, or communication skills. Our coaches are drill instructors and not educators. We expect them to inherently be educators and have now made changes that require them to be educators. The tests we now created for Sundays in soccer are 100 questions long and we are only giving children 30 seconds to answer. Oh, and the practice was skip counting, but we decided to make the test about calculus. We increased constraints and complexity and expected coaches to make up for it in one or two sessions per week and very little working knowledge of educational theory or child development principles.
In chatting with friend overseas, I was informed that some clubs refuse to play structured games in tight spaces with high numbers until the teen years. They felt players need time, space, and freedom with positive feedback to learn. They said games create too much pressure and constraints. Again, there is your free play for children to develop their skills without adults applying constraints.
This is a lot to digest. I could be completely wrong, and believe me, I would love to write an article 5 years from now stating how wrong I was and how far we have come in soccer. I don’t want to build a system based on desperate hope.
At STAR, we started talking about the other facets of being great coaches. We use weekly guest training sessions, specialty clinics, and peer review to assist with the technical and tactical development of our coaches. Honestly, many of our coaches are former players, so they know the game. At STAR, my biggest concern is helping them TEACH the game to the next generation. That takes skills a former player does not always have innately.
The focus now needs to be on developing learning tracks and addendums to licenses that include more educational, psychological, development, and communication principles. My focus is no longer on sharing more sessions. Coaches can use Google to find millions of sessions. My focus is now on helping them develop great training progressions with those sessions, creating a culture of learning excellence, managing a learning environment that is conducive to massive learning outcomes, and communicating in meaningful ways that athletes understand, synthesize, and apply to their game.
That would be my suggestion. Start giving coaches more tools and resources beyond the game itself to help them become better educators. The better they are in those spaces between games, they more our children will adapt in the games to these changes and the more we will “develop the next great one”.
Let the banter begin. We need to have meaningful conversations and look at the varied perspectives to better understand the long-term implications of the changes and the intent of those changes. Change is not easy, but change is the only constant and is the catalyst for growth. Proper change takes knowledge, forethought, hard work, and grit.
Right now we have too much rhetoric around what may be all the wrong questions. We worry about the symptoms we see instead of what is causing those manifested symptoms in our soccer culture.
The question seems to be what will these changes do to my child?
Maybe it should be:
Are we legislating competition-based outcomes when we should be developing training-based best-practices?
I am not done. We are not done. Change takes many people and much time. Stay Tuned.