Critically evaluate the contribution of Vygotsky's work on the Zone of Proximal Development | Education

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Vygotsky's original ideas on the relationship between child development and learning, leading to his concept of the ‘zone of proximal development', have become hugely influential in education and teaching practice, spawning much research in this field in recent years.  It is important firstly, to situate Vygotsky's work alongside that of Piaget, whose theories have underpinned much of educational thinking and practice for many decades.  The concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) has opened up many new ideas, not only about the nature of child development itself, but also about how children may be helped to learn more effectively within the classroom context.  Researchers have studied work within the ZPD from a variety of perspectives and there are clearly contrasting views, emanating from Vygotsky's work, about the nature of children's learning and how it might best be enhanced through the interrelationships between children and adults and children and their peers. 


Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist writing in the 1920s and early 1930s,presented a view of child development and learning which was radicallydifferent from that of his contemporary, Piaget. Piaget's work achievedrecognition and subsequently became highly influential in the realm ofeducation and teaching practice. However, as highlighted by Schaffer(1996) and Faulkner and Woodhead (1999), Vygotsky died in 1934 and hisideas became recognised only more recently, having been translated,during the 1960s and 1970s, into English from Russian.  Vygotskycriticised Piaget's basic notion that the developmental process beginsin infancy with the child progressing through a period of relativeegocentricity, eventually reaching a condition in which his or herthinking and behaviour become socialised.  He suggests that thisapproach “precludes the notion that learning may play a role in thecourse of development or maturation of those functions activated in thecourse of learning” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.79).  Whilst Piaget, then,essentially saw the child as initially egocentric, only graduallybecoming a social being, Vygotsky turned this view completely around,suggesting that even the youngest infant is profoundly social.  Incontrast to Piaget, Vygotsky believed that development moves from thesocial to the individual, the child progressively achievingself-awareness and a capacity for reflection through his or herinteraction with others.

Vygotsky, then, argued that interaction with others is crucial forthe child's achievement of mental maturity and individuality.  Hesuggested further that this achievement depends upon interactions withthose people, within the child's environment, who are more capable andadvanced than the child.  Processes of interaction, through discussionand argument between the child and these others, become the basis forprocesses which take place within the child at an individual level(Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999).  These notions form the basis of whatVygotsky has termed the ‘zone of proximal development' (ZPD).  Vygotsky(1978) points out that it has been commonly understood that learning,and instruction, should be matched in some way to the child'sdevelopmental level.  The teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic,for example, has been traditionally initiated at a specific age level. However, according to Vygotsky, we should not “limit ourselves merelyto determining developmental levels if we wish to discover the actualrelations of the developmental process to learning capabilities”(Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999a, p.11).  Instead, he suggests that wemust take account of at least two developmental levels.

Vygotsky acknowledged the existence of the actual developmentallevel which is the summation of a child's mental functions, asdetermined through the child's performance on a battery of tests ortasks at varying degrees of difficulty.  He argues, however, that,through testing in this way, we tend to judge the level of the child'smental abilities according to those things that children can do ontheir own.  If the child is offered leading questions or is helpedtowards a solution in collaboration with other children, therebyperhaps just missing an independent solution to the problem, this isnot regarded as evidence for his or her mental development (Vygotsky,1978).  We have failed, then, according to Vygotsky, to recognise thatwhat children can do with the assistance of others could be even moreindicative of their mental development than what they can do on theirown.

The zone of proximal development, then, constitutes those mentalfunctions which are currently in an embryonic state but in the processof maturation.  Vygotsky summarises this idea thus “the actualdevelopmental level characterises mental development retrospectively,while the zone of proximal development characterises mental developmentprospectively” (Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999a, p.12).  Vygotskysuggested, then, that if we were to seek to discover the maturingfunctions of a young child, his or her capabilities as shown incollaboration with others, we will be able to obtain an accuratepicture of that child's future actual developmental level.  In terms ofclassroom practice, instruction which aims for a new stage in thedevelopmental process, rather than oriented towards learning which hasalready been mastered, is seen as ultimately more effective for thelearning process.  Vygotsky essentially argued that the relationshipbetween learning and development is not straightforward withdevelopment following school learning in a linear way.  Rather, the twoprocesses tend to interact with each other continually in highlycomplex and dynamic ways (Vygotsky, 1978).

The Vygotskian concept of the zone of proximal development, alongwith others, such as scaffolding and guided participation, is centralto the socio-cultural approach to development.  Guided participation,for example, as outlined by Rogoff (1990), is rooted in the idea thatcognitive, linguistic and social competencies are developed throughchildren's active participation in a variety of adult-guidedactivities.  Meadows (1994) describes how the more expert person,whether adult or peer, provides a context or “scaffolding” within whichthe child may act as though he or she were able to solve the problemposed and, ultimately, indeed master the problem.  The adult, forexample, gradually leaves more for the child to do as he or she becomesmore familiar with the task and is able to accomplish the whole tasksuccessfully and independently.  Once the task, together with itsassociated cognitive competency, is achieved, the child is then able todevelop and pass on these skills to peers. 

Commentators such as Faulkner et al (1998) and King and O'Donnell(1999) have highlighted that Vygotsky's concept of ZPD has beencommonly understood to imply that neither the task difficulty nor theguidance given to children should be too far in advance of theircurrent level of ability.  The research evidence, particularly thatpresented by Tudge et al (1996) and Tharp and Gallimore (1998), forexample, seems to be generally supportive of this observation. Schaffer (1996) expands on Vygotsky's emphasis on the importance of the‘knowledgeable other' for children's learning and development.  Hehighlights the distinction between vertical and horizontal (also knownas asymmetrical and symmetrical) relationships, and the uniquecontribution that each kind of relationship makes to children'sdevelopment.  Vertical relationships are those in which partners haveunequal power and knowledge, such as that between adult and child or achild and older sibling.  The equal status between peers in horizontalrelationships, as Schaffer points out, allows children the opportunityto acquire skills, such as those involving co-operation andcompetition, turn-taking, sharing and leadership qualities moreeffectively than might be possible through, say family relationshipswhich are not egalitarian in terms of knowledge and power.

Many researchers focus on play as an important medium through whichyounger children develop skills in negotiating shared understandingswith each other.  Pretend play, in particular, was seen by Vygotsky asproviding opportunities for children to explore role relationships andacquire social skills, perspectives and cultural roles that are far inadvance of their ‘actual' developmental level.  Pretend play, thus,constitutes a good example of learning within the ZPD since childrenare constructing for themselves many possibilities for learning.  Whenwe consider peer collaboration in general, whether inside or outsidethe classroom, the concept of prolepsis, first articulated byRommetveit (1979), cited in Goncu (1998), has been identified as animportant mechanism through which children construct and communicateunderstandings with each other.  Stone (1993), for example, describesprolepsis as a communicative device whereby children take for grantedthat their partners share their knowledge and, therefore, will leaveimplicit some of the meaning embedded in that knowledge (cited inFaulkner and Woodhead, 1999).  This, in turn, is said to motivatepartners to test out assumptions about each other's meanings andunderstandings, creating a climate for intersubjectivity to develop. 

Schaffer (1996), however, points out that simply providing childrenwith appropriate experiences, whether in play or structured group workwithin the classroom, is insufficient for effective new learning totake place.  In keeping with the concept of ZPD, Schaffer defineseffective tuition as teaching which elicits from the child performanceat a developmentally advanced level.  Like Meadows (1994) mentionedearlier, Wood (1988) and Schaffer (1996) also argue that effectiveteaching involves the gradual transfer of responsibility for masteringthe task in hand from adult to child, as the child is able to masterincreasingly complex aspects of that task.  Although these lattertheorists focus upon adult-child tuition, these ideas could applyequally well to the transfer of skills and knowledge between childrenand their peers (Vygotsky, 1978).

Vygotsky saw the ZPD as an essential feature of learning,maintaining that “learning awakens a variety of internal developmentalprocesses that are able to operate only when the child is interactingwith people in his environment and in co-operation with his peers”(1978, p.90).  However, as Faulkner and Woodhead (1999) point out,children do not necessarily acquire communicative and social skillsfrom each other.  Neither can it be assumed that effective learning isachieved by the strategies teachers use through discussion.  It seemsclear that, for example, in group situations the social dynamicsdictate that individuals tend to take on different roles.  Someindividuals emerge as dominant or natural leaders; some take on therole of mediator or critic or perhaps adopt a very passive stance.  Itcannot be assumed, therefore, that even the most skilled tutor canensure that group discussion and interaction will create an effectivelearning space for each participant (Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999).

Researchers such as Wood (1988) and Mercer (1995) have noted thatformal teaching and learning contexts are ‘contrived' encounters in thesense that, in contrast to informal, spontaneous gatherings, peoplehave to acquire specific ways of talking and behaving according toparticular ground rules.  Edwards and Mercer (1987) have presented adetailed analysis of one common teaching strategy, defined as theinitiation-response-feedback (IRF) mode of exchange.  In the IRF mode,the teacher initiates by posing a particular question or problemassociated with the topic of the lesson and pupils respond and aregiven feedback in terms of the rightness or wrongness of theiranswers.  However, it is argued that this reduces learning into asomewhat sophisticated guessing game which renders children as passiverespondents, merely trying to search for the answers required of them,rather than as active participants, through perhaps posing questions oftheir own, in the learning process (Wood, 1988). 

Mercer (1995) explores this theme further in his analysis of classroomdiscourse and its role in knowledge creation.  He describes how jointunderstandings and shared frames of reference between pupils andteachers are established in effective classroom discourse.  The aims ofskilled teachers are seen as firstly, to orientate students' learningactivities to the formal curriculum, secondly, to co-construct with thestudents a shared understanding of educational knowledge and thirdly,to help students commit their learning to memory (Mercer, 1995).  Inhis socio-cultural analysis of the teaching/learning process, Mercerhighlights the many ways in which teachers sustain classroom discourseby “confirming, reformulating, repeating, elaborating, rejecting orignoring the contributions learners make to classroom discussions”(Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999, p.84).  Through his extensive experienceof classroom research across different societies, Mercer concludes thatsuch guidance strategies, although commonly used in schooled societies,are underpinned by certain ‘common-sense' assumptions about teachingand learning and may, therefore, be questioned and challenged.

Mercer and Fisher (1998) argue that scaffolding, as a concept, isuseful for analysing how teachers may actively organise and supportchildren's learning when they in pairs or small groups.  However, theymaintain that a focus upon learning within the ZPD is too narrowlyrestricted to the dyadic interactions between adults and children andis therefore less useful within the classroom context.  They suggestthat in terms of analysing the quality of teaching and learning inclassrooms, the ZPD seems to have limited applicability because“practical circumstances force most teachers to plan activities on thescale of classes or groups, not individuals.  The notion of any groupof learners having a common ZPD seems untenable!”(Mercer and Fisher,1998, p.127). 

Other researchers, however, such as Moll and Whitmore (1998), haveargued that the ZPD concept can be useful in classroom contexts.  Theysuggest that traditional conceptions of ZPD based on dyadicinteractions are, indeed, too narrow and do not account for thesocio-cultural dimensions of the classroom as a context for learning. Moll and Whitmore (1998) use examples of children's written work todemonstrate how one particular class teacher provided a series of‘authentic social contexts' within which her bilingual students wereable to explore the myriad of oral and written conventions of theirlanguages.  Moll and Whitmore (1998), thus, suggest that it isunnecessary to view ZPD simply in terms of the characteristic of eachindividual child but that classrooms can accommodate ‘collective'ZPDs.  They redefine the ZPD as “a zone where children can beencouraged to participate in collaborative activity within specificsocial (discourse) environments” (Moll and Whitmore, 1998, p. 132). They conclude that classrooms should be viewed as socio-culturalsystems where, over time, teachers and students build up a history ofshared understandings and generate new knowledge.

The idea of creating shared meanings and joint understandings,whilst central to the socio-cultural approach to teaching and learning,has been queried in other circles.  Stone (1998), for example, has beenconcerned to elaborate more precisely the mechanisms involved in theprocess of intersubjectivity.  He argues that the quality of theinterpersonal relationship between teacher and learner is crucial forthe quality of learning that takes place within the classroom.  Stoneemphasises the importance of shared understanding between teacher andlearner and observes that adults may not always be sensitive enough tothe lack of understanding, particularly in younger children, of thepragmatic conventions apparent for effective communication anddialogue.  He is particularly concerned to point out that sharedunderstandings and commonly understood frames of reference betweenteacher and pupils do not occur instantly but take time to develop. The argument for longitudinal studies, such as the research by Moll andWhitmore (1998) mentioned earlier, is therefore a strong one sincethese provide a richer description over time of teacher/learnerrelationships than ‘snapshot studies' of isolated teaching and learningexchanges which can often produce a skewed and negative view ofteachers' competence.

King and O'Donnell (1999) point out that although Vygotsky himselffocused more on the benefits of adult-child interactions rather thanthose of peer collaborations, his theory has “tremendous implicationsfor our understanding of peer collaboration” (p.40). Many researchershave explored the ways in which peer interaction impacts uponchildren's learning, problem solving and cognitive development.  Formanand Cazdan, for example, investigated how “the reasoning strategies ofcollaborative problem solvers differ from those of solitary problemsolvers” (1998, p.192).  They compared the performance of three pairsof 9 year old children working on a series of scientific reasoningtasks with the performance of three pairs of 9 year old childrenworking alone on identical problems.  They found that, when aVygotskian perspective is adopted, children gained more valuable socialand linguistic experiences through working collaboratively on the tasksthan through working alone on the same tasks.

King and O'Donnell (1999), along with Light and Littleton (1998),provide evidence that, in some circumstances, peer interaction does notpromote individual cognitive progress.  Not all children work welltogether, and not all tasks are conducive to joint problem solving. King and O'Donnell (1999), for example, argue that applying Vygotsky'stheory to collaborative problem-solving involves more than simplypairing a child with a more competent other and focusing on theinteractions between them.  They suggest that relying on the ZPD interms of the interpersonal aspects of interaction is insufficient. What is required instead, according to King and O'Donnell, is an“interweaving of different aspects of development, involving theindividual and the cultural-historical as well as the interpersonal”(1999, p.40).  They cite evidence which demonstrates that not allsocial interaction has beneficial effects and, under some conditions,collaboration can, in fact, have detrimental outcomes.  Factors such asage, gender and ability level of the child and partner(s) andchildren's motivation to collaborate can all affect the quality oflearning outcome.  The extent to which children are exposed to moresophisticated reasoning by a partner together with willingness toaccept and use that reasoning can also play a key role.  King andO'Donnell, thus, note that “individual and contextual factors interactand mutually affect each other” (1999, p.46).

King and O'Donnell (1999) cite other research by Ellis and Rogoff(1982; 1986) and Gauvin and Rogoff (1989) which provides support forthe idea that a ZPD can be constructed with either an adult or a peer. However, they also point out that this research “indicates that pairingwith an adult has different consequences (often more beneficial) forchildren's learning” (King and O'Donnell, 1999, p.50).  Manyresearchers have explored the ways in which teachers can guideknowledge construction through promoting effective group work in theclassroom.  As mentioned earlier, children are likely to need adultinput if they are to work on collaborative tasks productively.  Tharpand Gallimore (1998), for example, use the concept of scaffolding tosupport their argument that individual self-determined competence inany area may be generated only after successful performance has beenachieved by assisted learning in the child's ZPD.  They characterisethe ZPD not as a distinct, discrete growing point for an individualchild but rather as a complex array of growing edges involving allareas of developing competence.  They describe in some detail how theadult assistance provided between parent and child is not a linear,step-like procedure but an ongoing process involving a myriad ofreciprocal interactions which reflect, monitor and adjust to thechild's learning needs at any given time.  Tharp and Gallimore arguethat “attempts by assisting adults to assess a child's readiness forgreater responsibility (in the mastery of a task) often are subtle andembedded in the ongoing interaction” (1998, p.105).

One example of teaching as assisted performance through the ZPD, asdelineated by Tharp and Gallimore (1998), is the study by Baker-Sennettet al (1998) which explored the relationship between groupcollaborative processes and the nature of children's creativity.  Thisstudy includes a fascinating account of the ways in which the ideas,planning and organisation of a play based on a fairy tale by one groupof six girls, aged between seven and nine, changed over a period of onemonth.  The role of the class teacher in structuring the task for herpupils was also discussed.  The ways in which this teacher encouragesthe girls to reflect upon and address the interpersonal dilemmas theyencounter are also illuminated in the research report.  Baker-Sennettet al (1998) draw out the evidence in the study for the girls'movement, collectively, through parallel interpersonal zones as well asliterary, creative zones.    

Tharp and Gallimore (1998) suggest, however, that the kind of assistedperformance commonly evident, and successful, in the interactions ofparents and children is rarely found in teacher/student relationshipswithin the classroom.  The assistor, if he or she is to workeffectively within the ZPD, must remain in close touch with thelearner's relationship to the task.  In short, it seems that commonlyin the classroom, there are too many children for each teacher and notenough time available for working closely enough with the ZPD.  AsTharp and Gallimore observe, “public education is not likely toreorganise into classrooms of seven pupils each” (1998, p.107).  Theydo remain optimistic, however, suggesting that small groupcollaborative working, promoted through innovative instructionalpractices, together with the increasing use of new materials andtechnology could create the conditions for assisted performance toflourish in the future.

In conclusion, then, Vygotsky's work on the zone of proximaldevelopment, and its associated concepts of scaffolding and guidedparticipation, has stimulated thinking and research about the nature ofchild development itself, its relationship to children's learning andthe implications for classroom practice.  It seems clear that there arecontrasting views on the ways in which children relate to the‘knowledgeable other', the nature and value of peer collaboration, thenature and extent of adult-assisted learning and the implications ofall this for the quality of learning achievable.  As Tharp andGallimore (1998), King and O'Donnell (1999) and others argue, it seemsthat working effectively with the ZPD must take account of not onlyindividual factors and immediate interpersonal interactions betweenchildren, adults and peers, but also the myriad of cultural-historicalinfluences upon children and adults.  This undoubtedly presents achallenge in terms of current constraints on classroom size andorganisation in public education.  Some research studies, for examplethe account by Baker-Sennett et al (1998), have shown that throughsensitive and creative classroom practice the conditions for optimallearning through working with the ZPD can be created.   

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