Constructivism 2: Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development Lecture

Introduction

This chapter introduces the ideas of Vygotsky and examines one of the most famous concepts in educational theory: the Zone of Proximal Development. There is a brief account of Vygotsky's background and context, followed by a summary of his approach to child development. Terms such as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), and other key concepts, such as the Actual Developmental Level (ADL) of the child and the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO), are explored. This theory is then applied to the context of education. Examples are provided to illustrate how the theory works in educational practice. The strengths and limitations of this theory are explored, using some academic literature on its contribution to our understanding of the educational process from early childhood, through school education and into adult life. There are prompts for reflection which focus on key points in Vygotsky's thinking, and which are designed to help you to relate this material to your own knowledge and experience. The reflection and example sections are very important dimensions of the chapter, because they help you to translate this theory into useful learning for yourself, and they will encourage you to transfer this learning into your own teaching practice.

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand Vygotsky's approach to child development
  • understand and explain clearly what the Zone of Proximal Development is
  • explain how this theory is applied to education
  • critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory
  • link this theory to educational practice

What is Vygotsky's approach to child development?

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist of Jewish heritage who wrote more than 180 papers before he died of tuberculosis at the very young age of 38. He lived and worked in Moscow, and his thinking is influenced by the Communist ideology which prevailed in Russia after the Revolution of 1917. This ideology emphasises the importance of collective action, and the obligation of individuals to contribute to the whole of society. Notions of cultural and historical change are also important components in his thinking. Vygotsky's approach to child development is constructivist, based on the idea that cognition is the result of mental construction. His distinctive contribution to educational theory is to emphasise the social experiences that the child has in its family and school environment (Gray and MacBain, 2015). He believed that learning is an interactive process, involving contact between the learner and other individuals, at every stage in life from birth onwards. A child's Actual Developmental Level (ADL) refers to tasks that the child can complete on their own, while the child's Potential Developmental Level (PDL) refers to tasks that the child can complete with help from someone else. Vygotsky was interested in the difference between these two stages, and he argues that this is where learning takes place.

This approach implies that a child must receive guidance from more competent individuals to learn new knowledge and skills. These individuals can include parents, teachers, other adults, and even peers of the same physical age and older children. These individuals who offer mentoring and guidance to the learner are collectively known as More Knowledgeable Others (MKO) because they have a better understanding or higher ability in relation to a particular task and they can impart this knowledge to the learner in order to help him or her move on from their current level of understanding and ability. It is possible for interaction with an MKO to take place at a distance, for example in a correspondence course or online, or through software that presents new material, tests a learner and gives regular gives feedback on the learner's input.

This idea differs from classical theories of child development which assumed that developments in the child must take place first, before learning can occur. Vygotsky's approach assumes that the child develops and learns at the same time, and that these two processes are very closely related. Social development, therefore, is a key concern in this approach, since Vygotsky argued that "it is through others that we become ourselves" (Neaum, 2016, p. 11). Clearly, the nature of the social environment that a child has at home will be highly significant in helping the child to develop, even before starting school. Vygotsky's approach suggests that children may well develop differently, depending on the kinds of interaction that they have with other people, but as they grow older they gradually adapt to the norms and conventions of the society around them. Indeed, the purpose of learning is to help them to effect this change in their language and thinking.

Reflection

Compare Vygotsky's ideas about cognitive development with those of Piaget: which theory do you find most convincing. Why do you think this?

A key difference between the two theorists lies in their view of the roles of teachers and of peers in children's learning. Vygotsky emphasises one-to-one instruction by adults who guide learners, while Piaget emphasises children independently exploring with their peers. Are these theories mutually exclusive?

Think about an educational context that you know well. Apply Vygotsky's theory to the learning that takes place there. Do you think that the cognitive development of the learners is following a universal pattern, or do you think different social environments are causing learners to develop differently?

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

One of the things that interested Vygotsky most of all was the way in which learners make progress. Because of Vygotsky's view that development and learning take place simultaneously, it is acknowledged that sometimes it can be difficult to determine what a child actually knows, and what the child is still in the process of learning. It is only when the teacher probes what the learning is thinking, that it becomes clear how well the learner has grasped the material in hand. Vygotsky stated that "what a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 87). This period between learning to do something with help from a teacher and actually being able to do it without any help is the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky defines it 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 able peers" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). In other words, Vygotsky sees the process of learning as being heavily dependent upon situations and events which are very specific to a certain time and place, with the input of individuals being focused on tasks that are just beyond the child's ability to achieve alone.

According to Vygotsky, the ZPD is where learning will take place most easily and effectively. There must be communication between teacher and learner, and the teacher must able to fill in the gaps that the learner has not yet grasped, and encourage the learner to ask questions, develop new ideas and ultimately, feel that they can complete the task that has been set. As the learner grows more capable, the teacher steps back to let the learner experiment with the new knowledge that he or she has gained. After a little while, the teacher should then be looking to push the learner on to the next stage of development and learning by presenting new ideas, new skills, and new opportunities for learning.

A key dimension of this theory is the need to calibrate adult interaction with the stage of development and learning that the learner has reached. If the adult input is too simple, then the child will not be challenged and little or no growth will occur. If the adult input is too far from what the child already knows, then the learning process may not even begin, and the child will struggle to comprehend what is being asked of them. In order to avoid these problems, interactions between adult and child need to take place very frequently. The quality of this interaction is extremely important, since the learner must engage with the process and express his or her thoughts and feelings, to let the teacher know how well he or she has understood (or not understood) the lessons that are prepared for them. This means that there is teacher-centred instruction in the form of explanations, demonstrations, and frequent direct questioning, but this must be matched by student-centred discussions, allowing the learner to seek help, check his or her understanding, and display what they have learned. The interaction must be two-way if it is to result in progress being made.

Reflection

Observe the interactions between a mother and an infant (ideally between six and eighteen months old). You can do this by asking one of your relatives or friends to let you observe them for an hour, or by finding some videos online which depict such interactions. Can you identify any instances where the mother and child are communicating in the Zone of Proximal Development? Write down what you think the child is learning, and how you think the mother is helping the child to learn.

How important is language in this process? Can learning take place in the Zone of Proximal Development if the learner is not able to speak, or does not speak English? How does a mother cope with her very young child's lack of language skills?

Can you recall any adult in your life who has been particularly good at helping you to develop? What is it about this person, or this relationship, that made the time you spent together so beneficial for your learning and development?

Another factor that is very important, and sometimes overlooked, is the role that context and culture play in the zone of proximal development. Sometimes development and learning occur within the family, and at other times in school or college, or in the wider community. Learning can be formal and structured, or informal and less obviously structured, or something in between. Countries differ in the way they prepare children for adult life. In most western countries, there is a long, compulsory period of learning in which is managed by professional teachers, but in many developing countries, children have shorter amounts of formal schooling, but much more exposure to the working world of adults in their community.

The surrounding culture in wider society will strongly influence the times and places where children are most likely to experience their Zone of Proximal Development. Learning occurs best when children learn through "guided participation" (Shaffer and Kipp, 2014, p. 245), and this can be highly context-dependent, as for example when a son learns how to catch fish with the crew of his father's fishing boat, or context-independent, as in schools in many western countries where children follow a national curriculum that is designed to prepare them for participation in society as an adult, including especially all the skills and knowledge that prepare them for work.

Example

A very good example of a non-Western culture which influences the process of learning is the way in which cottage industries are passed on through families and communities through child-adult interaction in the home. Cole (1985, pp. 157-158) describes the way in which girls in who were growing up in families of Zinacantecan weavers in south-central Mexico in the early 1980s learn to weave using small, portable looms. There are six clear steps in the process which girls were taught through direct one-to-one instruction by expert weavers. From setting up the loom to completing a whole garment, adults closely supervised the novices, starting with direct instruction to do this or that. The novices imitated what the expert weavers were doing and were guided through every step. When a girl is starting a stage that she has not completed before, adults spend 93% of the time weaving with her, but this drops away to 50% when the child has completed a whole garment, and gradually much less as the child becomes more proficient. The nature of the conversations shifts from direct commands from the adult to the child, to discussion of various aspects of the work, and as the young weaver masters the craft, she is increasingly accepted as part of the adult workforce. This is a gradual process, and it takes years before the girls acquire the full mastery that their adult teachers have.

Cole (1985, p. 157) comments that "the successive steps toward mastery are experienced by the novice as part of the overall adult activity … before they actually take responsibility for any of the six steps … they have been witness to the entire process countless times". In other words, the child has already amassed a considerable knowledge about weaving from observing others in her own home, and there is already a strong social imperative for girls to learn this traditional craft. In this culture, weaving is seen as part of growing up, and ability to complete the different steps is linked with maturity and acceptance into adult life.

It should be clear by now that language is very important in Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. Learners must cooperate and collaborate with the teacher and they do this, assuming they have at least basic language skills, through dialogue. Ideally, learners and teachers should co-construct knowledge, each contributing what they know so that a shared understanding is reached.

How does this concept apply to Education?

Vygotsky's ideas were enthusiastically received at first in Russia, but they fell out of favour with the Communist regime. Other Russian and Western theorists were preferred, and there was a long period in which Vygotsky's ideas were not available to researchers. In the middle of the twentieth century, however, his writings were translated into other languages and disseminated by Vygotsky's students and collaborators, and they are now very influential across many countries. One major impact of the broad popularity of Vygotsky's ideas has been an acceptance of the need to monitor children's progress on a very regular basis, in order to determine exactly which stage they have reached, and then determine what kind of input and interaction they need in class in order to progress to the next stage. Assessment, according to Vygotsky, must be pitched at the level of the learner, and this has given rise to the practice known as "dynamic assessment" where teachers monitor and record progress day by day, rather than relying on static measures such as IQ tests (Daniels, 2001, p. 57). The principle of learning through interaction with other people who are more skilled than the learner has also been applied to many educational levels and many different learning contexts.

One of the most important elements of Vygotsky's theory for education is the idea that instruction must be pitched at a level just above the learner's current stage of development. This has significant implications for education, because it means that "when teaching manages to tap into something the child has already experienced, considered or internalised the child is able to move further in terms of thought and problem-solving" (Smidt, 2009, p. 83). The role of formal education is both to provide opportunities for learners to experience, consider and internalise a large amount of new material, and to provide opportunities for children to then build on this knowledge incrementally as they encounter more and more difficult problems. Ideally, things that have been learned in the classroom can be mixed with things that have been learned at home or in the playground, and a good teacher will prompt the learner to think about new tasks using any and all prior skills and knowledge that the child already has.

The focus on language in the theory of the ZPD has led to a considerable amount of research into classroom talk. This includes the way children talk (to themselves, to their teacher, to each other) and the way teachers talk to children in school. This has been helped by modern research methods such as classroom observation, with or without audio and video recording, and discourse analysis, often using ethnographic, linguistic or sociological theories to interpret the data. Talk in this context is understood as "a social mode of thinking" (Mercer, 1994, p. 95), and researchers can gain an understanding of the learning process by observing the way children and their teacher talk to each other during lessons. Young children talk to themselves when they are approaching a difficult task, for example, and Vygotsky sees this as a way of using language to help order the child's thinking. Older children and adults seek advice from each other in such a situation, or if their development stage is high enough, they engage in an internal dialogue with themselves, weighing up one idea with another and working out what they think about a difficult issue. When teachers want to encourage learners to develop an ability to use language to debate and reason then they do this by breaking down the difficult issue into smaller tasks such as defining concepts, summarising what is known, looking for new possibilities, asking and answering questions, interpreting texts etc. These are activities which involve both language and thinking as building blocks to be used in the pursuit of learning.

Reflection

What kind of talk do you think is most helpful within the Zone of Proximal Development?

Think about a teaching session that you have observed, or perhaps one that you were involved in either as teacher or learner. Was the teacher-talk pure instruction, or was it collaborative? [Hint: did the teacher use "I" and "You" pronouns, or "we" and "our" pronouns? Look carefully at when, why and how questions were asked and/or instructions were given - there should be quite a variety of explicit and implicit ways of asking and telling].

What kind of classroom seating arrangement do you think might be most suitable for focusing on the Vygotskian ZPD? And where should the teacher be?

Teachers who have understood Vygotsky's theories will be able to understand the difference between a child's score on a test, which is concrete and comparable with other children's scores, and a child's potential for learning and development, which is harder to quantify and compare. Children who perform a task at the same level unaided may achieve very different levels when offered guidance and support from a teacher. This is because some children's Zone of Proximal Development is larger than others' (Wood, 1998). A child might show great potential to learn in one area, but less potential to learn in another. These differences in children's potential are only evident when they are engaged with tasks under the guidance of a teacher or more experienced person. The implications for testing and examinations are rather far-reaching, and this line of thinking may explain why so many universities and employers conduct interviews before they accept applicants to their organisations. An interviewer can gain a better idea of an applicant's potential through a conversation, than by looking at a list of examination grades, or a curriculum vitae and covering letter.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

The main strength of this theory is that it is very intuitive and easy to grasp, and it can be applied universally to any educational context. Its basic principle of learning from a more skilled individual underpins many formal and informal types of education, from the child learning to tie his shoelaces in kindergarten, to the teenage girl carrying out an experiment in the science lab in school, the apprentice working with machine tools in the workshop or the philosophy student in a University seminar. The teacher is there to demonstrate and to guide the learner through new tasks, offering advice and encouragement, and setting sub-tasks that the learner must complete in order to achieve the larger goal that the teacher has judged appropriate for the age and level of development of the learner.

Another strength of this theory is that there is plenty of evidence available in books, and in any teacher's own professional experience, that can illustrate how the theory works in practice. In any kindergarten, there are areas where children are encouraged to use props and tools to engage in meaningful tasks that they already recognise from their own life before they came to school. Activities like dressing up, housework and cooking, shopping, or going to the doctor or dentist provide familiar settings in which children can share their own previous experience, talk about what it means, and learn from each other as well as from the teacher. Interactions in these areas, and props and tools which are usual in contemporary culture will help to make explicit what the child already knows, and to validate that experience as a foundation on which further learning can be built.

One limitation of this theory is that it is so broad, that it can be interpreted and applied in a great many ways. Debates about what it means and how it should inform educational methods and policies have been raging ever since it was first published. Most educationalists accept the broad thrust of Vygotsky's work, but there is much debate about how exactly it should be applied in different contexts. This is why some books refer to "neo-Vygotskian concepts" (Mercer, 1994, p. 108) and cite other scholars, rather than Vygotsky's original writings. There is now a very large body of literature that builds upon Vygotsky's core ideas, and it is easy to lose sight of the original thinking amidst this later accumulation of material.

Another significant limitation of the theory is that it emphasises social factors, including the social setting of the classroom, but in fact the theory has been applied mostly to the learning of individual children (Mercer, 1994). The reason for this may have something to do with the fact that Vygotsky died before the age of forty, which meant that he had not had enough time to work through all of the implications and applications of his ideas in his short academic career. This limitation means that it can be quite difficult to apply Vygotsky's theories to contemporary school settings where classes are large, and where social and cultural factors are very complex and highly relevant to the way individual children learn.

Reflection

Try to define Vygotsky's theory of the Zone of Proximal Development in your own words and think of an example in your own teaching which illustrates this theory. Ask other teachers (or other students on your course) to tell you how they define it and give you examples from their own experience. Examine closely any similarities and differences between these answers.

What have you learned from this social interaction with others who are working in the field of education?

How can this theory be linked to practice?

Vygotsky's theory can be linked to practice through a proper understanding of the collaborative and reciprocal nature of learning. The traditional view of learning as the transmission of knowledge from one person to another is not appropriate, and instead teachers should ensure that the classroom is full of interactions that are both meaningful and purposeful for each learner (Neaum, 2016). Within the same classroom, children might be at different stages and so there should be a range of opportunities on offer for coaching and mentoring so that every child reaches the milestones that are set in the school curriculum.

Example

Declan is an eight-year old boy who sometimes appears to be on the edge of the social group within his primary school classroom. His language and literacy skills are good, as measured by standard tests, but he does not talk very much with his peers. He likes to talk to the teacher, but she is very often too busy with the other 25 children in the class, some of whom have special educational needs.

Declan spends a lot of time on his computer at home, mostly playing games, but also researching robots, which is a special interest of his. He seems to enjoy learning about artificial intelligence and robotic engineering from BBC websites and television programmes, and takes part in many games and quizzes using his computer.

The teacher realises that Declan needs to develop his social skills, especially with his peers, and notices that he is very keen on computers and gadgets. She takes him aside and explains that she needs someone to help everyone in the class with a listen-and-write task on habitat conservation which is to be completed on the school's iPad devices. Declan is nominated group leader for this task, along with several other children, each of whom helps a group to complete the task individually. In Declan's group, one of the boys, Jason, comes from a farming background but does not have a computer at home, and the two boys strike up a conversation about conservation and agriculture.

This example shows how children learn from the teacher, from information technology and from each other within the Zone of Proximal Development. Interaction takes place in various ways, and for various purposes, some directly related to a particular task (the listen-and-write exercise using the iPad) and some which are tangential to the main task but nevertheless relevant to at least one child (for example Declan's communication skills). Declan takes on the role of expert when he is explaining how the iPad works to his peers, but Jason takes on the role of expert when it comes to explaining the role that farmers play in conservation and protection of vulnerable flora and fauna. The important thing to note is that all children are being challenged to move on from their current stage and learn something new, and all are receiving guidance and stimulus from other sources. By judicious interventions the teacher can ensure that each child has challenges that match their unique developmental needs. 

There is often a difference between the language that children use in their everyday lives, and the language that they need to acquire as they learn about specialised fields of knowledge such as mathematics, music or science, for example. In Vygotsky's writings, this difference is described as that between spontaneous and scientific concepts, and both are important for a child's cognitive development. A child usually learns about animals in the home and can talk about cats and snakes, for example, but it takes formal instruction of some sort for the child to learn concepts such as mammal and reptile and to understand how these terms fit into the much more structured body of human knowledge that is called science (Moll, 2014, p. 34). The notion that animals belong to different species which can be catalogued with Latin names, and studied using methods from biology, chemistry, environmental science, etc. is the start of a scientific understanding of the world. The child does not forget the stories about animals that she loves to read or listen to, nor the close relationship that she has with a family pet, but she learns to switch from this everyday understanding to a different, more analytical and academic understanding. Such skills are necessary if the child is to acquire an understanding of our heavily technological society and the ability to communicate with others who share the assumptions of modern science.

This process is not just a matter of learning some new vocabulary, but rather a process of getting to know whole new cultures and patterns of behaviour that are features of different areas of experience. The teacher introduces the learner to whole new ways of thinking about the world, and the learner must be able to step outside of the limits of his or her current thinking in order to imagine new approaches. This ability to think about things using a range of different cognitive tools, concepts, behavioural patterns and discourses is a key element in formal schooling, and it is very important at all levels, right up to adult and professional education where complexity is the norm, and knowledge is continually being extended into new areas.

Reflection

Think about the kind of learning that takes place in a university department devoted to one of the more technical professions, such as medicine, law or astrophysics, for example. What kinds of learning would you have to undertake if you wanted to start a degree in that faculty? What kinds of tools? What kinds of discourses and behaviours?

Do some research into your chosen faculty by looking up a few degree courses in a subject you have not studied. Can you identify any subject-specific or discipline-specific events, settings, contexts, teaching or assessment modes which are designed to maximise learners' progress in a ZPD sense? It might be helpful to look at module titles and imagine why they might be challenging for a non-specialist, for example, a dissection in a pathology laboratory. Think about the role of the teacher in these subjects, and how Vygotsky's theory might help the teacher to optimise conditions for student learning.

Conclusion

The work of Vygotsky is rightly considered as one of the main foundations of modern pedagogy. However, it must be remembered that Vygotsky's ideas originated in the early part of the twentieth century, almost a century ago, and they have their origins within a rather rigid Communist system. Some of Vygotsky's individual statements may not be directly applicable to contemporary education because they relate to issues that were of concern in that time and place, such as the emergence from revolution and war and the establishment of a society guided by Marxist ideology. Vygotsky is not always easy to read because of this. His focus on a child acquiring the tools and language of the surrounding society and adapting to conform to its norms is informed by a socialist understanding of psychology. Many other ideas, however, including the ZPD, go well beyond the limitations of Marxist theory, which explains why his work was suppressed in his own country.  He remains a very important figure in educational research, and his work continues to inspire more research and debate about pedagogical theory and practice today.

Reflection

By the time you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the examples and reflection sections, you should

  • understand what Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development in the context of education
  • be able to use the technical terminology associated with this theory, such as More Knowledgeable Others and adaptation to society
  • relate this theory to educational practice at different levels from infancy to adulthood.

Now you should complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter. Use what you have learned in this chapter to complete the short task described there.

Reference list

Cole, M. (1985) The zone of proximal development: where culture and cognition create each other. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), Culture, Communication, and cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 146-161.

Daniels, H. (2001) Vygotsky and Pedagogy. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.

Gray, C. and MacBain, S. (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood. London: Sage.

Greenfield, P. M., Maynard, A. E. and Childs, C. P. (2003) Historical change, cultural learning, and cognitive representation in Zinacantec Maya children. Cognitive Development 18, pp. 455-487.

Mercer, N. (1994) Neo-Vygotskian theory and classroom education. In B. Stierer and J. Maybin (Eds.), Language, Literacy and Learning in Educational Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters/The Open University, pp. 92-110.

Moll, L. C. (2014) L. S. Vygotsky and Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Neaum, S. (2016) Child Development for Early Years Students and Practitioners. Third edition. London: Sage.

Shaffer, D. R. and Kipp, K. (2014) Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence. Ninth edition.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Smidt, S. (2009) Introducing Vygotsky: A Guide for Practitioners and Students in Early Years Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wood, D. (1998) How Children Think and Learn. Second edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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