1.3.3 Constructivism 2: Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development
This scenario explores ways in which the ZPD (zone of proximal development) and the allied Vygotskian concepts discussed in this chapter may be of use in teaching situations. As with any theoretical approach to education and to development it can be of use to the teacher most readily if they can see it for themselves in action; a lesson planned along the lines of what is described in this scenario might well not only evidence to you as an educator and to your classes as learners that acquiring new skills, knowledge and competencies is not merely a matter of taking on that new understanding from a conceptual perspective, but also in experiencing it in real-world situations, and being able to discuss that learning acquisition process with others. Of course, much of this will be invisible to learners; as with any magic trick, it is best not to explain what it is that you are doing as that tends to undermine the process. Instead, think of the social constructivist approach as one which validates group working, peer and teacher support, and the use of other scaffolding devices from interactive programs to textbooks. Where practicable, though, social interaction with other humans is to be privileged, so teamworking, paired groups, and other means of putting learners together for their mutual benefit can be of great value.
In this scenario, we are teaching a mathematics lesson. The topic here doesn't matter, but the way in which we might organise the class may well be of significance. A starter activity is set at the outset of the session; a simple quiz on the topic of the day, with perhaps ten short questions. You collect in the answer papers (make sure that they've got the learners' names on them!) but won't have them graded yet. This will come later. Now, a fresh task. After appropriate input from us as the session leaders, the class is set a group activity. Learners might be paired up - a stronger and a comparatively weaker learner together, perhaps, or small groups with varying abilities - and they're each told that it's going to be their turn to teach the next part of the session. Their task is to write some notes to be the basis for the lesson that they're currently learning inside, based on the input that's just been given. And then they're each - as a group - going to deliver that mini-lesson to the rest of the class. These presentations don't have to be lengthy or involved, but they should evidence that the group can - together - show that they can describe the mathematical operation that's the centre of the session, and that they can explain it to others. This happens twice over: first within the group, as the group decides how the learning is to be expressed and evidenced, and then to the wider class. After each of the groups has presented, then the class will have received a selection of differently-phrased and explained versions of the same material. The new learning will have been given meaning through having been agreed in group between the members of each team, and through the different kinds of presentation offered by the groups. Having learners agree and then explain to their peers helps support ownership of the new knowledge, reinforces the appropriate knowledge across the class, and can be a fun way of getting learners to engage in new learning.
Task: how might we continue this session with follow-on activities which build on the existing knowledge in the class, and which support social constructivist teaching ideas in practice?
A follow-on activity from this could perhaps be given to check for understanding across the board. Another quiz sheet similar in complexity to the first with the same number of questions. Once this is completed, learners - in turn - are invited to discuss their answers and how they arrived at their answers. When the two sheets have been graded, then there should be evidence of learning in the improvement in scores from the first to the second short test. One way of focusing on improvement rather than on overall score, is to emphasise the importance of the difference between the two scores. So, if a learner scored 5 on the first test and 8 on the second, then their improvement score is +3. This is better - because there's been more development in the session - than someone who scores 8 in the first text and 9 in the second (giving an improvement score of +1). This way of marking can be used to reward both achievement and improvement, as well as a diagnostic to check for learners whose performance is inconsistent; these might be the basis for more focused one-to-work with a teaching colleague.
One possible idea is to reform the class into groups - either the same ones, or different ones to keep the dynamics fresh - and ask each group to devise a test sheet with answers of questions of increasing difficulty within the topic being studied. Such tests - or sample questions from each one produced in the classroom - can be used as summative activities or as a starting point for the next session as a check on the knowledge being retained from the earlier lesson. As with all group activities, we need to ensure that tutor support is actively enabled by visiting each group and checking on their progress. Also, there is a need to ensure that dominant personalities are not taking over group working, and that all are participating equally and meaningfully. Observation of the group dynamic can also yield insights into the importance of language use in the transmission of information and the manipulation of knowledge in social constructivist approaches to learning.
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