1.3.2 Constructivism 2: Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development
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?
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.
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.
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 her. 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.
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.
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?
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.
The focus on language in the theory of the ZPD has led to a considerable amount of research into classroom talk: the way children talk (to themselves, to their teacher, to each other) and the way teachers talk to children. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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). 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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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