We keep hearing about the importance of Vygotsky in current debates about teaching and learning. Can you explain to us what his main contribution is and how his ideas are being used today?
Vygotsky's work is the foundation of what is known in child development psychology as Social Development Theory. His ideas characterise many of our 21st century norms about how learning and development takes place.
Writing shortly after the revolution in Communist Russia, Vygotsky's work was influenced by Marxist ideas of social and historical development. Vygotsky believed that all cognitive development happens through social learning, and thus is inextricable from one’s social-cultural context. In contrast to Piaget who believed there were universal stages of development that all children naturally pass through – Vygotsky argues that learning happens through our social interactions, and thus is dependent on experience. Where Piaget sees intelligence and cognitive development as ultimately fixed at birth, or genetic, Vygotsky leans towards the nurture side of the debate, seeing intelligence as something changeable, and dependent on learning and culture.
For example, a young child given a jigsaw may spend hours playing with it and not work out how to put it together. However, with some help from a parent, who displays and explains to the child strategies for finding the right pieces (look for the straight edges first, for example), the child can learn how to put the jigsaw together, and very soon, will start to succeed at putting the jigsaw together on his/her own. Thus the interaction with the child's parent spurred his cognitive development.
Depending on the cultural context of the parent, the strategies provided would be different – for example, through verbal instructions or more visual or demonstrative methods. Thus, Vygotsky argued that individual cognitive development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded.
As Andrew Sutton points out in his article, ‘Would the real Vygotsky please stand up’ , a child's cognitive development potential is 'actively created out of the process of upbringing and education’. If a child's educational outcomes are mediocre, then this is a product of their education and upbringing, and critically something could have, or still could, be done about it!
Main principles of Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development
1. MKO - More Knowledgeable Other
Vygotsky points to the role of a More Knowledgeable Other in demonstrating ideas, values, strategies, speech patterns and so on that a child internalises and learns from. In early stages of development, this is likely to be a parent, but it can also be a teacher, peers, or a technology.
2. ZPD – Zone of Proximal Development
At the core of Vygotsky's theory is the theoretical construct of the Zone of Proximal Development (or Near Development). Vygotsky claimed that a child has limits to what he/she is able to learn alone, however these limits are extended under the guidance and support of an MKO. The Zone of Proximal Development represents the potential ability of a child when given guidance and help from others. For learning to occur, the learner must work with a challenge that is within his ability when provided with assistance, and gradually, as the assistance is reduced, learning and cognitive development occur.
Vygotsky states: ‘What lies in the zone of proximal development at one stage is realized and moves to the level of actual development at a second. In other words, what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow. [italics added]’ (Thinking and Speaking, 1934/1987).
3. Authentic Activities
An interesting element of Vygotsky's construct of the ZPD is the stipulation that learning and teaching should happen in 'whole' or 'authentic' activities that mimic real life. For example, a child should not be taught to write as an abstract skill, rather through purposeful tasks such as writing a letter. The activities should create a need to achieve the new learning as this establishes the environment in which the ZPD of the learner is embedded.
Implications for current teaching practice
1. Intelligence and ability
From a Vygotskian perspective, ability (or lack of ability) is not inherent or genetic. Rather a child will learn most effectively if the learning is within his ZPD. Learning outside of a learner's ZPD – i.e. learning that is too challenging – will be inaccessible, opening the child up to failure and affecting his/her confidence as a learner. Similarly, as noted by Philip Adey, ‘the under-stimulated child does not develop their intelligence as they should’.
2. Intelligence and self-conception
IQ-based models of ability and teacher and student conceptions about intelligence as fixed and static can affect successful learning. Carol Dweck, American Psychologist has shown how a student’s preconceptions about whether their ability to perform a task is predetermined and not open to change – or indeed, flexible and incremental – can have a profound influence on how they cope with challenge. She calls this the 'Growth Mindset'. For more information, visit the website here.
3. Formative assessment
A child's learning goals must be personalised to his needs and abilities and his success measured in terms of progress from his personal prior levels, in line with his dynamic and changing ZPD.
4. Scaffolding and modelling
Scaffolding and modelling are at the core of the ZPD model (in contrast to, for example, a discovery-learning model). Much research shows how parents model and scaffold their children's learning through mediating language to the developmental level of the child and modelling play activities or tasks.
Modelling and scaffolding are commonplace today in education – the main implications of Vygotsky's work are to ensure that scaffolding is available to all students (not just the weak or SEN students) and that it is geared at the ZPD of the relevant learner, as opposed to a one model fits all approach. The aim of the scaffolding should be to enable the child to access the challenge. It should involve leading questioning and should direct the child to succeed in undertaking the challenging task themselves, rather than offer a sentence starter/word bank/gap-fill approach to managing completion of the task.
5. Mixed ability groupings and peer to peer-tutoring
Peers are equally able to act as the MKO, and students that have mastered a skill/subject are able to support other students to achieve it. Heterogeneous rather than homogenous groupings are valued as a means of forwarding learning of all.
Vygotsky related pedagogies
1. Reuven Feuerstein’s ‘Mediated Learning'
Feuerstein worked with new immigrant children to Israel after WW2, who had come from the concentration camps or from North Africa. Both groups of children had experienced war, family upheaval and destruction and upon their entry into Israel, were refused schooling on the basis that they were uneducable. Feuerstein theorised that these children’s social circumstances had robbed them of the interactions they would normally have had with adults which would have given children the interpretative skills to analyse and reflect upon the world in which they live.
Like Vygotsky, Feuerstein believes that these interpretative skills, which are bestowed from one generation to another, are what we normally understand as intelligence. If this process of bestowal is disrupted, as a result of circumstance, poverty or neglect – a child’s thinking apparatus may be dysfunctional. Feuerstein centralises the role of a mediator and culture to successful learning, and thus finds that learning problems can be redressed – by facilitating the right culture and mediation experiences.
Feuerstein developed a teaching approach that targets the specific cognitive problems of individual children and provides specific sorts of pupil/mediator interactions that aim to correct the child’s problem. He designed a set of instruments designed to facilitate these interactions which he calls ‘Mediated Learning Experiences’ and the instruments collectively – ‘Instrumental Enrichment’. He also developed a set of tests that could pinpoint the child’s area of cognitive weakness and in a ‘test-teach-test’ routine establish how far a child could travel with a little mediation. For further information about Feuerstein’s work in practice, see Howard Sharron’s article, ‘Diagnosing learning difficulties’ and book ‘Changing Children’s Minds’ (Available for purchase here).
2. Cognitive Acceleration
Phillip Adey, the theorist behind Cognitive Acceleration is interested in how we can improve learners’ 'intelligence'. He understands intelligence as the ability to make connections between past and current learning, to see situations as complex and multifaceted. He argues that the ability to make useful connections is connected to our 'working memory capacity', as opposed to our 'long-term memory'. Working memory is the capacity to recall information from our long-term memory and make associations from it, thus boosting our ability to process complex information. Working memory capacity is limited and grows with age – thus enabling an older person to hold more bits of information simultaneously and hence process more complex information. The Cognitive Acceleration projects aim to boost intelligence, by increasing a student's ability to handle complex information and make connections.
The Cognitive Acceleration projects are based on putting these principles into practice in projects. For further information, see Philip Adey’s article, ‘Cognitive Acceleration’.
3. Accelerated Reader
Accelerated Reader is a computerised program that helps children improve their independent reading capacity based on ZPD principles. Children undertake an initial assessment (STAR reading enterprise assessment) to identify their optimal reading level, and then the program suggests suitable reading material difficult enough to keep them challenged but not so difficult to cause frustration. It helps teachers set personalised goals for each student. It also offers assessment 'quizzes' on texts with instant feedback, which monitor students levels of comprehension and inform further instruction or intervention. For further information, visit their website here.
4. Collaborative Learning
Collaborative or 'co-operative' learning refers to getting children to work in small groups to help one another learn academic material, or to undergo an enquiry, or challenge together, with an emphasis on promoting dialogue and joint responsibility. However, as Slavin argues, real co-operative learning has its own pedagogy and putting children in groups to learn is really only the beginning. In Slavin's article, ‘What makes groupwork work?’, a wide range of co-operative learning models and strategies are reviewed.
For a greater look at the pedagogy behind Collaborative learning and the ZPD theoretical underpinnings, see the Peter E Doolittle article, ‘Understanding Cooperative Learning through Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development’. For an excellent article outlining ideas for effectively facilitating collaborative learning in the classroom, see Chris Watkins’ article, ‘Collaborative learning’.
5. Philosophy for Children
Mathew Lipman's Philosophy for Children is a pedagogical approach that centres on developing thinking and reasoning skills through a student-led group enquiry approach, called 'Community of Enquiry'. Lipman was influenced by Vygotsky's social model of cognitive development and central to his Community of Enquiry model is the notion that children's thinking develops through learning in peer groups. As Roger Sutcliffe explains in his article ‘Philosophy for Children’, Lipman believed that children learn to think and feel better ‘through internalising each other's speech patterns and values’.
Similarly Lipman adopts the MKO role for the teacher, suggesting that the teacher will model good, critical, and creative patterns of questioning and reasoning in the early stages to guide the learners appreciation of enquiry skills, and as they develop in ability and responsibility, the teacher will back off.
For an introduction to Philosophy for Children, see the P4C knowledge bank.
6. The Growth Mindset
Carol Dweck's notion of how students’ concept of their own intelligence has been used to try to measure and improve self-concept. Bob Burden's article ‘Myself as a Learner’ discusses the connection between student self-concept and student motivation, and introduces MALS – a scale designed to focus directly on students' perceptions of their learning abilities.
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