The Child in Social Context

Guided participation refers to the process by which children actively acquire new skills and problem-solving capabilities through their participation in meaningful activities alongside parents, adults, or other more experienced companions. Guided participation emphasizes the active role of the child in learning and cognitive growth and the complementary role of parents and other caring adults in supporting, assisting, and guiding the child's intellectual development. Support includes both explicit verbal and non-verbal guidance as well as more subtle direction through the arrangement and organization of children's interactions with the environment. Guided participation occurs throughout the course of childhood as children progress from a peripheral and dependent role to one of increased autonomy and responsibility while they strive to master the challenges posed by the surrounding social and cultural milieu (Rog-off, 1990,1998; Gauvain, 2001).

Casual observations of parents interacting with their young children typically offer many examples of guided participation. In the grocery store 3-year-old Alberto holds the shopping list for his mother and studies a box of Cheerios as he sits in the shopping cart. Alberto's older brother, who is 7, is searching for a can of soup that says “tomato.” When he has found the soup and they move on to the next aisle, his mother will have another job for each of them. Alberto's mother is skillfully engaging her boys with the shopping, and the children are enjoying themselves in an activity with their mother, feeling competent with the tasks she sets for them as they learn about their social world.

The term guided participation was introduced by the neo-Vygotskian, Barbara Rogoff, in her book Apprenticeship in Thinking (Rogoff, 1990) to clarify the nature of children's cognitive development within the framework of sociocultural theory. Vygotsky claimed that the ability to engage in higher mental functions, the distinguishing feature of human psychology, is rooted in social interaction. Thinking emerges from early social interactions in which the child works with others to solve problems. To insure children's success, more experienced partners direct their assistance to the child's zone of proximal development or potential development. This is defined as “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” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86.). This approach differed from prevailing views of cognitive development since the focus was not on what the child could do alone, but was future oriented, focusing on what could be done with help from others.

The notion of zone of proximal development offered a new way of thinking about verbal interactions and cognitive growth. Because language plays an important role in structuring social interactions language and communication patterns serve as one type of “scaffold” supporting the child's developing capabilities. A number of researchers looked for evidence demonstrating that appropriate talk on the part of adults supports children's problem-solving success (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Diaz, Neal & Amaya-Williams, 1990; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976).

Guided participation expands upon adult talk as a scaffold by broadening the social context and emphasizing the role of the child in relation to the adult. Gauvain (2001) notes that in this view, “the child is not merely a learner, or a nä─▒ve actor who follows the instructions or prompts of the more experienced partner. Rather, the child is a full participant, albeit a participant of a specific type characterized by individual and develop-mentally related skills, interests and resources” (p. 38). Children's participation in the organized routines and practices of the social community as well as engagement in more didactic experiences are all essential to cognitive development.

Some of the most compelling illustrations of guided participation are evident in parents' interactions with young children. These show that guided participation includes two focal processes: “creating bridges” to make connections to new ideas and skills and “structuring children's participation” in activities by creating opportunities for their involvement and through social support and challenge in activities and roles valued in their community (Rogoff et al., 1998).

While examples of adult-child interactions can be found anywhere people interact in meaningful activity, schools are critical contexts for guided participation. Particularly good illustrations can be found in child-450 centered or learner-centered classrooms where children are actively engaged in learning activities that have been carefully planned by the teacher, as the following example shows.

Sasha is one of the less skilled writers in her firstgrade class. She has completed a drawing and the teacher would like her to write something underneath the completed picture but she doesn't seem to know how to start. Sasha's teacher uses a technique that relies on graphic mediators to support children's early writing attempts. “Let's write something about your picture,” the teacher says. Sasha replies, “They are eating at McDonalds.” The teacher writes the five words Sasha has dictated on a strip of paper she has placed under the picture. “Do you see what I wrote? I wrote exactly what you said!” The teacher then takes another strip of paper and draws five horizontal lines along the edge, one for each of Sasha's words. Then she re-reads the sentences, pointing to the lines. Sasha will copy the sentence, one word on each line.

As Sasha becomes more confident of her writing the teacher will decrease the support she provides. Rather than provide the model, the teacher may simply draw the lines, one for each word, to help Sasha remember her sentence and to guide the spacing of her words. With further practice Sasha will be able to write a sentence independently. Sasha's teacher has supported her participation in the writing activity through sensitive and individualized guidance, adjusting the help she offers in response to the needs she observes in Sasha. Sasha and her teacher working together illustrate a child learning in the zone of proximal development.

The Child in Social Context

The sociocultural view of the Vygotskians and neo-Vygotskians (including the notion of guided participation) differs from more familiar American and western European approaches to learning and development. This is most evident in the assumptions about the nature of the individual as a learner and the nature of the environment in which learning occurs. Classical learning theories such as behavioral analysis or social learning theory emphasize a strong distinction between the learner and the environment. According to these mechanistic perspectives, individual learning results from some action of the environment on the individual. For example, the learner is rewarded for new behavior or the learner responds to a model in the environment. The learner is passive, awaiting direction for the environment. Conversely, the environment can be fully planned, and if done correctly, fully shape and direct behavior.

A second view, also at odds with the Vygotskian notion of guided participation, is the organismic approach of many developmental psychologists, including Jean Piaget (1896– 1980). From this vantage point, changes within the developing child are critical for understanding changes in children's behavior. These “within child” changes include physical as well as mental structures, and until they are formed learning is constrained. For example, children's expressive language capabilities result from developing physical characteristics, and these are largely separate from environmental or experiential factors.

A Comparison of Gagne's Component Skills Approach With Guided Participation Approach to Learning

Both Gagné's component skills approach and Rogoff's guided participation approach focus on learning through varied instruction. However, influenced by behaviorism and information processing theories, Gagné suggests that the skills needed for a task could be analyzed and taught as separate components in a hierarchical order from lower skills to higher ones. Indeed, he defines instruction as “the set of planned external events which influence the process of learning and thus promote learning” (1974, p.5). Yet, it still maintains the concept of knowledge acquired by learner, which Rogoff's notion of guided participation shares. Bringing Piaget's cognitive learning and Vygotsky's sociocultural learning theories together, Rogoff views instruction as an interactive process in which the learners participate in the activity guided by sociocultural values and systems. A more skilled peer or adult who jointly participate in the process gradually transfers the responsibility of activity to the learner. Yet, there is no external sequential instruction planned and applied either by instructor or learner. Because guided participation approach is drawn from cross-cultural community contexts, it has been widely applied to natural learning settings in early childhood and occupational learning fields, whereas Gagné's component skills approach has been utilized by instructional and curricular design in both educational and technical-military settings.


Gagné, R. M. (1974). Educational technology and the learning process. Educational Researcher, 3(1), 3–8.

Rogoff, B. (1995). Observing sociocultural activity in three planes: Participatory appropriation, guided participation and apprenticeship. In J. V. Wertsch, P. del Rio, & A. Alvarez (Eds.), Sociocultural studies of mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Both of these orientations assume that the individual and the environment are separable, a notion at odds with guided participation. Rather than focusing on the learner and the guiding “other” as independent, with one being active and the other passive, from a guided participation perspective, both the child and the environment (particularly the social environment) are active. The individuals and the social context in which they function are always linked, and the appropriate focus is the dyadic interaction within the real world. How learning processes work can be understood only by contextualizing the learning activity (see Gauvain, 2001, and Rogoff, 1990, for excellent discussions).

Origins of Guided Participation Concept

The construct of guided participation is grounded in the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the approach to cognitive development attributed to him in the early 20th century. This approach is known as the sociocultural perspective. Vygotsky and his colleagues were deeply influenced by the Marxist foundations of the new Soviet Union. One of the early goals of the Soviet regime was to bring literacy to the masses. Language and literacy are both tools of culture, and their use transforms mental capabilities. Vygotsky and his contemporaries were interested in understanding the impact of this effort as well as other aspects of the social environment on children's learning.

Although Vygotsky himself did not use the term guided participation, it shares several key notions with his work. The early socioculturalists were interested in the processes of social mediation and mind. They downplayed the idea of the individual knower separated from a social context; instead, they emphasized the role of the dyad or social group embedded in “activity.” At the time, the field of psychology was still in its infancy and very little was known about the mind, society, and the influences of culture upon thinking.

The work of the Russian psychologists was barely known to western European and American scholars. Some of their work was censored within Russia and much of it was not translated into English until the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time American psychologists were looking for alternative ways to conceptualize cognitive development. The shortcomings and limitations of Piaget's model of cognitive development were becoming evident to some. New findings from cross-cultural psychology were raising new questions about the universality of cognitive structures, an idea at the core of Piaget's theory. However, it was not clear how new findings in cross-cultural psychology should be interpreted. Cognitive psychology, rooted in information processing, was also becoming popular, but many researchers were unhappy with the excessively mechanistic, “machine-like” models of human functioning the early information processing models offered.

At the same time that Vygotsky's later work was appearing in the United States other cultural approaches to the study of human behavior were emerging. Some of this work was being conducted by anthropologists. This work was done outside university laboratories and relied instead upon ethnographic and field-based methodologies. These approaches focused on studying behavior as it is situated or as it occurs in the context of the real world. Knowledge was viewed as a highly valued social practice rather than something “in the head” (Lave, 1991). The workplace and communities, and the practices, routines, and talk that occurs within them were an important focus of study because they reveal the understandings and representations of participants (Heath, 1991; Wertsch, 1985).

An illustration of this is the work of Jean Lave. Lave worked in Africa, studying everyday cognition among workers in a tailor shop. She studied the rich repertoire of cognitive skills deployed by tailors in their work at the shop and studied the processes by which novices learn their craft. Tailors are trained through an apprenticeship. The apprentices learn their craft in a busy shop, not in a learning environment separated from world (as is school). They are surrounded by masters and other apprentices all engaged in the target skills at varying levels of expertise. They are expected to participate in activities that contribute directly to the production of actual garments, advancing quickly toward independent, skilled production (Collins, 2006, p. 32).

Lave & Wenger (1991) emphasize the movement of the learner from a peripheral position to a central position in activity. As Collins notes, guided participation and coaching are especially powerful forces for learning in the tailor shop. In the tailor shop, learners were mastering complex tasks that occurred with a web of memorable associations, all in highly meaningful contexts. Learning and teaching were highly situated and highly focused on the specific skills needed for the task.

Apprentices learn domain-specific skills through observation, coaching, and practice. The apprentice then attempts to execute the process with guidance and help from a master through a process of coaching. Collins explains this as follows:

A key aspect of coaching is guided participation: the close responsive support which the master provides to help the novice complete an entire task, even before the novice has acquired every skill required. As the learner masters increasing numbers of the component skills the master reduces his or her participation, providing fewer hints and less feedback to the learner. Eventually, the master fades away completely when the apprentice has learned to smoothly execute the whole task. (Collins, 2006, p. 48)

Illustrations of Guided Participation

Some educators and cognitive psychologists have extended the ideas of Lave and Wenger (1991) to the design of instructional models useful in elementary and secondary education (Collins, 2006). Developmental psychologists have focused on issues in children's learning and cognitive development, often with a focus on parent-child interactions and the influences of these processes on higher mental capabilities (Cole, 2006; Gauvain, 2001; Rogoff, 1998; Wood, 1998).

Rogoff notes that while Vygotsky was primarily interested in the development of the mind through interpersonal interaction, he placed a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between language and thinking. Rog-off argued that the child was capable of developing thinking even when the culture placed less emphasis upon language and writing. She demonstrated this in her research with Mayans in Mexico, many of whom did not write or engage in excessive amounts of verbal interaction (Rogoff, 1998).

Gauvain (2001) notes that guided participation offers a fuller account of the child's active role in cognitive change, along with the significance of social interactional context. Guided participation can include notions such as scaffolding, coaching, and tutoring, but it also extends to broader views of supportive context for learning and development beyond the adult or more experienced partner. Such a context includes the myriad ways in which adults structure experiences for children and hence enable children to move from positions of peripheral involvement to full involvement within the community (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Finally, an essential component of guided participation is the notion of intersubjectivity. This is the process by which two individuals achieve a joint focus on a problem. Intersubjectivity must be mutual, but even young infants participate in the process. Research shows that infants as young as 3 months can shift focus and visual engagement with their mothers. This type of interaction provides the starting point for intersubjectivity (Bruner, 1985; Tronick, 1982). While adults can establish general goals for children, and the adult can direct and scaffold children's performance, fine tuning and adjustment to the mutual needs of the particular individuals participating in the interaction is needed for optimal learning and meaning making.

Contrast With Traditional Views of Learning

The first way guided participation differs from traditional views of learning concerns the assumptions about the nature of the learner. Learning in the traditional sense assumes that the learner can be clearly differentiated from the environmental setting. Instead, it is assumed that children's activity is intimately linked with the social context in which it is occurring. Guidance can be provided in many different ways, close at hand (e.g., the parent leading the child through a game) or more distal, as when a teacher has carefully selected and arranged materials for small groups of children to use in a learning center. In both cases, the adult begins with a general plan, but then adapts and fine tunes the plan in response to the child. The adult works to achieve a level of intersubjec-tivity with the child. This allows the adult to adjust and fine tune to meet the child optimally. One metaphor is to view the learner as following a path to an endpoint or destination specified by the adult. The child discovers the path. The adult posts trail markers if and when they are needed along the way. The adult cannot post the markers before the journey because the precise path the child will try to pursue is not known.

Second, unlike traditional views of learning, it is assumed that the meaning of behavior for the child will change over time. First efforts may look like play, or childish imitations. Yet these early attempts are the first steps towards mature, independent, self-directed activity. With time, and the appropriate environmental support, children will be able to carry out the behavior more independently. Later, children will carry out the behavior with a different understanding of why they are doing it, why it works, and how it is understood by others.

For example, children's first attempts at writing may be scribbles on a page, following a period of observing others writing with crayons on paper. Later, children will understand that these marks on paper can be used to communicate with others. Initially the action of “writing” is an exploration of the physical world (crayons on paper) and a way to become part of the group of other children marking on papers with the adult. In another year or two, the children will sit at their tables and writing, but it will have an entirely different meaning. Perhaps they will be writing their names.

Third, while traditional views approach learning as a strictly cognitive process, guided participation unifies the cognitive, social, and emotional dimensions of behavior. The focus is the whole person; the social and the emotional cannot be separated from the cognitive (see Rathunde & Csikszenthemihalyi, 2006). The interpersonal relationship between the partners supports the give and take necessary for children to appropriate and acquire new competencies. While the more knowledgeable partner sets broad goals for the interaction, adaptations to the needs of the individuals must be made. Again, this is particularly evident in parent-child interactions with young children.

Prevalence of Guided Participation Cross Culturally

Rathunde & Csikszenthmihalyi (2006) note that the basic processes of guided participation are universal. In all cultural settings, parents and children must arrive at a mutual interpretation of a situation that allows intersub-jectivity, or a common focus of attention and shared presuppositions. This is substantiated by findings from cross-cultural research comparing parent-toddler dyads from four cultural settings: Utah; Mayans in Mexico; Turkey, and India. Results demonstrate striking similarities, as well as distinctive differences, across these settings (Rogoff, Mistry, Goncu & Mosier, 1993; Packer, 1993).

The benefits of guided participation are grounded in maintaining the child/learner in the zone of proximal development (Rathunde & Csikszenthmihalyi, 2006; Vygotsky, 1978). A number of studies confirm that guided participation is beneficial to children's development. They note that parents' use of guided participation has been linked to infants' and toddlers' communicative competence, to improvement in children's seriation skills, and to greater exploration of novel objects by 3- to 7-year-olds. Wood and Middleton (1975) note that when mothers adjusted their instruction to their children's needs by guiding at a slightly challenging level and adapting their behavior based upon their children's successes, children performed more successfully on a complex building task. Importantly, it was not the number of interventions the mother made but the quality of the interventions that was important (Rathunde & Csikszenthmihalyi, 2006, p. 498).

Some illustrative examples of guided participation are evident in the research reported by Rogoff and her colleagues (Rogoff, Mistry, Goncu, & Mosier, 1993) comparing U.S. mother-child dyads with Mexican Mayan mother-child dyads. All mother-child dyads were observed in their homes as they interacted with selected materials, such as a baby doll, nesting dolls (a set of wooden dolls that were seriated in size and fit one inside the other) and play dough. Past work has shown that middle-class U.S. parents and others with similar schooling experiences appear to place a greater emphasis on explicit, declarative statements, in contrast to tacit, procedural, and more subtle forms of verbal and nonverbal instruction which are more evident in other cultures.

These differences were evident in a comparison of the mother-child pairs Rogoff and her colleagues studied. They describe a 20-month-old and mother from both communities. Both were first-born boys who played with the nesting dolls in a skilled and interested manner. Both included a counting routine as they interacted with their mothers. For both communities, the interaction was extreme in similar ways: Counting routines are not usual with this toy in either community, and both mothers seemed more concerned with their children's performance than other mothers from their communities. As Rogoff and colleagues (1993) note, the most extreme differences between these two dyads concerned status roles. The American mother would get on the child's level, playing with or teaching her child. The Mayan mother also assisted the child but maintained a difference of status. They also differed in responsiveness and in the subtlety of their verbal and non-verbal communication. The difference is consistent with the American child “being treated as the object of teaching and the Mayan child being responsible for learning” (Rogoff, 1993, p. 246). The researchers comment that Mayan mothers showed readiness to aid in their children's efforts to learn whereas the American caregivers acted as teachers and playmates (see Rogoff et al., 1993, pp. 246–247 for full examples).

Examples of Instructional Applications

Guided participation is most evident in interactions involving an adult or other skilled individual with an individual child or a small group of children. Examples can be found across a variety of areas including some early childhood programs (Golbeck, 2001). Detailed discussion for programs in specific practices include Tools of the Mind (Bodrova & Leong, 1996), one museum-based science education project (Gelman, Massey & McManus, 1991), several mathematics programs (e.g., Lampert, Rit-tenhouse & Crumbaugh, 1996; Cobb, Wood & Yackel, 1993), and a technique called reciprocal teaching (Palin-scar, Brown & Campione, 1993) which has been used in early reading instruction and elsewhere.

In their discussion of Tools of the Mind (an early childhood curriculum), Bodrova and Leong (1996) identify the “structuring of situations” as an illustration. The teacher (or other adult expert) structures tasks into different levels or sub-goals. Sub-goals are broken down further or changed as the child and adult are engaged in interaction or in exploring the zone of proximal development. Guided participation occurs as the adult and child work together on a problem. The expert may repeat directions or model actions several times. If the teacher is teaching counting, she may limit the number of objects to count or choose objects of only one type to help simplify or structure the task. When the child cannot count ten objects the teacher may drop back to counting only five objects. Such structuring helps the child perform at the highest level of the zone of proximal development. The changes the teacher makes cannot be fully planned ahead of time. They occur in response to the child and the assistance the child needs at a particular point in time.

A Classroom Illustration

The following is an example of a guided participation approach to teaching within the context of a preschool classroom. Four children and their teacher are sitting at a table in the writing center. They are working together on a book for a child in the class who is in the hospital. Every child will contribute a page and then the pages will be bound together. The children differ in age, previous writing experience, language development, vocabulary knowledge, and fine motor capabilities. The teacher has helped the children individually define writing goals, and the children have told the group of their writing plans. Because the teacher knows each child's independent capabilities she knows how she might extend their writing and help them reach their optimal performance. These children all know one another quite well and they look to one another for help, at least occasionally. The most accomplished writer is proud to help others in this context.

As the teacher chats with the children she is attending closely to their work. One child consistently fails to allow enough room on the paper for his writing. She makes a mark on his paper and suggests he start at that point. She points to the left edge of the paper, near the mark, and says that if he starts near this side he will have plenty of space to write. Another child is a much more sophisticated writer than the others. He requests help spelling. The teacher tells herself she must get a dictionary within reach of the writing center. Another child is frustrated with the writing process. The teacher was about to suggest he make a drawing to illustrate his written message, planning to have him return to the writing after he completes a drawing. But before she got the words out, another child turned to him expressing interest in his work and asked him what he was writing to their friend in the hospital. The frustrated child calmed down and said he was writing about the new truck in the block area. He returned to writing the word “truck” which he was copying from an index card written earlier by the teacher.

One more child is sitting on the teacher's lap. This child is developmentally delayed and functions at the cognitive and emotional level of a toddler. This child has had far less writing experience than the other children. He watches the others. Then the teacher hands him the crayon and they make eye contact. She points to a paper she has placed within his reach, and he drags his crayon across the paper in a slow, careful scribble. He smiles and looks at the teacher. She smiles warmly and says, “We will put this in the book too.”

In this example, the teacher is working with the children to create opportunities for guided participation in different ways and at different levels of proximity to the children. She has organized the environment and has helped children identify a broad goal (making the book). This is an important and meaningful activity. She helps individual children define goals for themselves within this larger task. She has arranged the writing center with appropriate materials and brought together a small group of children, creating a social environment of peers as well as herself. She is reaching out beyond the classroom and school world with this activity by reminding the children about their classmate's situation. (They will talk more about the hospital and what it is like to be in the hospital later in the day.) The teacher is also individualizing guidance by sitting at the table watching the children's activity, coaching them as needed and keeping notes on their progress.


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