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Vygotsky's Work on the Zone of Proximal Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4600 words Published: 8th Aug 2018

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Critically evaluate the contribution of Vygotsky’s work on the Zone of Proximal Development

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. 

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Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist writing in the 1920s and early 1930s, presented a view of child development and learning which was radically different from that of his contemporary, Piaget. Piaget’s work achieved recognition and subsequently became highly influential in the realm of education and teaching practice. However, as highlighted by Schaffer (1996) and Faulkner and Woodhead (1999), Vygotsky died in 1934 and his ideas became recognised only more recently, having been translated, during the 1960s and 1970s, into English from Russian. Vygotsky criticised Piaget’s basic notion that the developmental process begins in infancy with the child progressing through a period of relative egocentricity, eventually reaching a condition in which his or her thinking and behaviour become socialised.  He suggests that this approach “precludes the notion that learning may play a role in the course of development or maturation of those functions activated in the course of learning” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.79).  Whilst Piaget, then, essentially saw the child as initially egocentric, only gradually becoming a social being, Vygotsky turned this view completely around, suggesting that even the youngest infant is profoundly social.  In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky believed that development moves from the social to the individual, the child progressively achieving self-awareness and a capacity for reflection through his or her interaction with others.

Vygotsky, then, argued that interaction with others is crucial for the child’s achievement of mental maturity and individuality.  He suggested further that this achievement depends upon interactions with those people, within the child’s environment, who are more capable and advanced than the child.  Processes of interaction, through discussion and argument between the child and these others, become the basis for processes which take place within the child at an individual level (Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999).  These notions form the basis of what Vygotsky 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’s developmental 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 merely to determining developmental levels if we wish to discover the actual relations of the developmental process to learning capabilities” (Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999a, p.11).  Instead, he suggests that we must take account of at least two developmental levels.

Vygotsky acknowledged the existence of the actual developmental level which is the summation of a child’s mental functions, as determined through the child’s performance on a battery of tests or tasks at varying degrees of difficulty.  He argues, however, that, through testing in this way, we tend to judge the level of the child’s mental abilities according to those things that children can do on their own.  If the child is offered leading questions or is helped towards a solution in collaboration with other children, thereby perhaps just missing an independent solution to the problem, this is not regarded as evidence for his or her mental development (Vygotsky,1978).  We have failed, then, according to Vygotsky, to recognise that what children can do with the assistance of others could be even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do on their own.

The zone of proximal development, then, constitutes those mental functions which are currently in an embryonic state but in the process of maturation.  Vygotsky summarises this idea thus “the actual developmental level characterises mental development retrospectively, while the zone of proximal development characterises mental development prospectively” (Faulkner and Woodhead, 1999a, p.12).  Vygotsky suggested, then, that if we were to seek to discover the maturing functions of a young child, his or her capabilities as shown in collaboration with others, we will be able to obtain an accurate picture of that child’s future actual developmental level.  In terms of classroom practice, instruction which aims for a new stage in the developmental process, rather than oriented towards learning which has already been mastered, is seen as ultimately more effective for the learning process.  Vygotsky essentially argued that the relationship between learning and development is not straightforward with development following school learning in a linear way.  Rather, the two processes tend to interact with each other continually in highly complex and dynamic ways (Vygotsky, 1978).

The Vygotskian concept of the zone of proximal development, along with others, such as scaffolding and guided participation, is central to the socio-cultural approach to development.  Guided participation, for example, as outlined by Rogoff (1990), is rooted in the idea that cognitive, linguistic and social competencies are developed through children’s active participation in a variety of adult-guided activities.  Meadows (1994) describes how the more expert person, whether adult or peer, provides a context or “scaffolding” within which the child may act as though he or she were able to solve the problem posed and, ultimately, indeed master the problem.  The adult, for example, gradually leaves more for the child to do as he or she becomes more familiar with the task and is able to accomplish the whole task successfully and independently.  Once the task, together with its associated cognitive competency, is achieved, the child is then able to develop 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 been commonly understood to imply that neither the task difficulty nor the guidance given to children should be too far in advance of their current level of ability.  The research evidence, particularly that presented by Tudge et al (1996) and Tharp and Gallimore (1998), for example, 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.  He highlights the distinction between vertical and horizontal (also known as asymmetrical and symmetrical) relationships, and the unique contribution that each kind of relationship makes to children’s development.  Vertical relationships are those in which partners have unequal 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-cultural systems where, over time, teachers and students build up a history of shared 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 been concerned to elaborate more precisely the mechanisms involved in the process of intersubjectivity.  He argues that the quality of the interpersonal relationship between teacher and learner is crucial for the quality of learning that takes place within the classroom.  Stone emphasises the importance of shared understanding between teacher and learner and observes that adults may not always be sensitive enough to the lack of understanding, particularly in younger children, of the pragmatic conventions apparent for effective communication and dialogue.  He is particularly concerned to point out that shared understandings and commonly understood frames of reference between teacher and pupils do not occur instantly but take time to develop. The argument for longitudinal studies, such as the research by Moll and Whitmore (1998) mentioned earlier, is therefore a strong one since these provide a richer description over time of teacher/learner relationships than ‘snapshot studies’ of isolated teaching and learning exchanges which can often produce a skewed and negative view of teachers’ competence.

King and O’Donnell (1999) point out that although Vygotsky himself focused more on the benefits of adult-child interactions rather than those of peer collaborations, his theory has “tremendous implications for our understanding of peer collaboration” (p.40). Many researchers have explored the ways in which peer interaction impacts upon children’s learning, problem solving and cognitive development.  Forman and Cazdan, for example, investigated how “the reasoning strategies of collaborative problem solvers differ from those of solitary problem solvers” (1998, p.192).  They compared the performance of three pairs of 9 year old children working on a series of scientific reasoning tasks with the performance of three pairs of 9 year old children working alone on identical problems.  They found that, when a Vygotskian perspective is adopted, children gained more valuable social and linguistic experiences through working collaboratively on the tasks than 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 not promote individual cognitive progress.  Not all children work well together, and not all tasks are conducive to joint problem solving. King and O’Donnell (1999), for example, argue that applying Vygotsky’s theory to collaborative problem-solving involves more than simply pairing a child with a more competent other and focusing on the interactions between them.  They suggest that relying on the ZPD in terms 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 the individual and the cultural-historical as well as the interpersonal”(1999, p.40).  They cite evidence which demonstrates that not all social interaction has beneficial effects and, under some conditions, collaboration can, in fact, have detrimental outcomes.  Factors such as age, gender and ability level of the child and partner(s) and children’s motivation to collaborate can all affect the quality of learning outcome.  The extent to which children are exposed to more sophisticated reasoning by a partner together with willingness to accept and use that reasoning can also play a key role.  King and O’Donnell, thus, note that “individual and contextual factors interact and 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 for the idea that a ZPD can be constructed with either an adult or a peer. However, they also point out that this research “indicates that pairing with an adult has different consequences (often more beneficial) for children’s learning” (King and O’Donnell, 1999, p.50).  Many researchers have explored the ways in which teachers can guide knowledge construction through promoting effective group work in the classroom.  As mentioned earlier, children are likely to need adult input if they are to work on collaborative tasks productively.  Tharp and Gallimore (1998), for example, use the concept of scaffolding to support their argument that individual self-determined competence in any area may be generated only after successful performance has been achieved by assisted learning in the child’s ZPD.  They characterise the ZPD not as a distinct, discrete growing point for an individual child but rather as a complex array of growing edges involving all areas of developing competence.  They describe in some detail how the adult assistance provided between parent and child is not a linear, step-like procedure but an ongoing process involving a myriad of reciprocal interactions which reflect, monitor and adjust to the child’s learning needs at any given time.  Tharp and Gallimore argue that “attempts by assisting adults to assess a child’s readiness for greater responsibility (in the mastery of a task) often are subtle and embedded in the ongoing interaction” (1998, p.105).

One example of teaching as assisted performance through the ZPD, as delineated by Tharp and Gallimore (1998), is the study by Baker-Sennett et al (1998) which explored the relationship between group collaborative processes and the nature of children’s creativity.  This study includes a fascinating account of the ways in which the ideas, planning and organisation of a play based on a fairy tale by one group of six girls, aged between seven and nine, changed over a period of one month.  The role of the class teacher in structuring the task for her pupils was also discussed.  The ways in which this teacher encourages the girls to reflect upon and address the interpersonal dilemmas they encounter are also illuminated in the research report.  Baker-Sennett et al (1998) draw out the evidence in the study for the girls’ movement, collectively, through parallel interpersonal zones as well as literary, creative zones.    

Tharp and Gallimore (1998) suggest, however, that the kind of assisted performance commonly evident, and successful, in the interactions of parents and children is rarely found in teacher/student relationships within the classroom.  The assistor, if he or she is to work effectively within the ZPD, must remain in close touch with the learner’s relationship to the task.  In short, it seems that commonly in the classroom, there are too many children for each teacher and not enough time available for working closely enough with the ZPD.  As Tharp and Gallimore observe, “public education is not likely to reorganise into classrooms of seven pupils each” (1998, p.107).  They do remain optimistic, however, suggesting that small group collaborative working, promoted through innovative instructional practices, together with the increasing use of new materials and technology could create the conditions for assisted performance to flourish in the future.

In conclusion, then, Vygotsky’s work on the zone of proximal development, and its associated concepts of scaffolding and guided participation, has stimulated thinking and research about the nature of child development itself, its relationship to children’s learning and the implications for classroom practice.  It seems clear that there are contrasting views on the ways in which children relate to the ‘knowledgeable other’, the nature and value of peer collaboration, the nature and extent of adult-assisted learning and the implications of all this for the quality of learning achievable.  As Tharp and Gallimore (1998), King and O’Donnell (1999) and others argue, it seems that working effectively with the ZPD must take account of not only individual factors and immediate interpersonal interactions between children, adults and peers, but also the myriad of cultural-historical influences upon children and adults.  This undoubtedly presents a challenge in terms of current constraints on classroom size and organisation in public education.  Some research studies, for example the account by Baker-Sennett et al (1998), have shown that through sensitive and creative classroom practice the conditions for optimal learning through working with the ZPD can be created.   


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Edwards, D, Mercer, N (1987) Common Knowledge: the development of understanding in the classroom, Methuen, London

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Moll, L.C., Whitmore, K.F (1998) ‘Vygotsky in classroom practice’:moving from individual transmission to social transaction’, inFaulkner, D, Littleton, K, Woodhead, Learning Relationships in theClassroom, Routledge, London, pp. 131-155

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