Luria once commented that Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (also spelled Vygodsky) was a genius. After more than half a century in science, Luria
stated that he was unable to name another person who even approached Vygotsky's
incredible analytical ability and foresight. Luria felt that all of his
work had been no more than the working out of the psychological theory
which Vygotsky had constructed.
Writing now (November, 2008) as a retired teacher who has also witnessed the influence of Vygotsky in the works
of cognitivists (Howard Earl Gardner and Robert Jeffrey Sternberg, being just two),
I continue to see how Vygotsky established an acceptable socio-political
foundation for much of the recent psychological investigations. He did
all of this by casting in befitting research from the Marxist-Leninist
thesis that all fundamental human cognitive activities took shape in a
matrix of social history and from the products of socio-historical development.
In other words,
Vygotsky felt that the intellectual ways of knowing the world that a student
displayed were not primarily determined by innate factors, that is, inherited
intelligence or mental abilities. Instead, Vygotsky 'saw' patterns and
levels of thinking as products of the activities practiced in the social
institutions of the culture in which the individual was immersed.
Zone of Proximal Development
best known contributions to developmental and cognitive psychology was
his various explanations to the question of how development came about
as a outgrowth of learning. Due to space limitations, I will feature here
only one of his explanations, namely his concept of the Zone of Proximal
Development (or, for short, 'ZPD'). Most simply defined for here, Vygotsky
referred to the distance between the abilities displayed independently
and with social support as the ZPD; his thesis being that this "zone" was
created by learning. To cite directly from Vygotsky, this most widely known
concept of his theory represented "the distance between the actual level
of development as determined by independent problem solving [without guided
instruction] and the level of potential development as determined by problem
solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers". Measurement would thus be achieved by comparing the student's performance
on both tasks.
behind this "zone" is that at a certain stage in development, children
can solve a certain range of problems only when they are interacting with
people and in cooperation with peers. Once the problem solving activities
have been internalized, the problems initially solved under guidance and
in cooperation with others will be tackled independently. The notion here
seems to be that one's latent, or unexpressed ability could be measured
by the extent to which one profits from guided instruction.
To frame what
I have just stated, within a practical educational example, let us take
two (2) students. Assume that both of their chronological ages (CA) are ten
(10) years and that both of their mental ages (MA) are eight (8) years. Ask whether one can characterize them as being of the same age mentally. On the face of it, of course, one would respond in the affirmative. But
this means that both students can deal with tasks up to the degree of difficulty
characterized by what eight (8) year olds can typically do. One could say
that the actual developmental level for the two learners is the same.
My most recent
readings on Vygotsky suggests that he is asking an additional and deeper question
here: Can one thereby ascertain that the subsequent course of their mental
development and their special school learning will be the same, because
both depend on their intellect? Naturally, there are non-intellectual factors
that may influence their school learning or their mental development. But
for the time being, let us simply consider these non-intellectual factors
as being comparable for our two (2) idealized students. Most people would assume
that one could make comparable predictions about each of the students. If Vygotsky were alive today, that is, in 2008, I believe that he would argue that this initial
view is incorrect.
I, the examiner, provide guided assistance to
each of the two students in order to help them solve some given ill-defined
problem. It turns out that, with this guided assistance, the first student
can deal with ill-defined problems up to the level of a twelve (12) year
old, whereas the second student can only deal with ill-defined problems
up to the level of a nine (9) year old. Would I still want to conclude
that the two students are mentally the same? I believe that Vygotsky would
postulate a firm no, for the first student has shown to be better able to profit
from instruction than the second. Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that
with regard to future as opposed to past development (as traditionally
measured using normalized, formalized, or standardized IQ-type instrument),
the first student is superior to the second and thus has a stronger prognosis.
To sum the immediate above three
(3) paragraphs, the difference between mental age twelve (12) and mental age eight
the first child, and mental age nine (9) and mental age eight (8), for
the second child, is what I believe Vygotsky refers to as the ZPD. That
is, the ZPD is 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 teacher guidance
or in collaboration with more capable (in this case) school aged peers. As a former state-funded public school classroom teacher and school principal, I surely do appreciate Vygotsky's interpretation because
there may be many pupils, especially within the underachieving gifted student
population, who are not identified because, although they have the potential,
they have yet to realize it. This is why, readers, I enjoy reading the writings of Lev Semyonovich
Implications of the Vygotskyian Zone
Vygotsky (supposedly) developed the ZPD concept to consider the problems of the measurement
of mental age and the prediction of future development and learning. Thus,
the concept of ZPD has obvious mental testing implications. For example,
if we have knowledge of one's ZPD for a particular skill, we can predict
how that learner will independently utilize that skill in the near future. Vygotsky's discussion of the relationship between learning and development
also has important instructional ramifications. In addition to suggesting
intellectual functioning, maximally effective instruction occurs within
the learner's ZPD. Instruction directed at the level of completed development
can, of course, increase the knowledge base, but will have minimal effect
upon the student's cognitive ability. Instruction directed beyond the proximal
level will tend to be incomprehensible to the student and thus will affect
neither knowledge or cognitive ability. The most effective teaching is
therefore somewhat, but not too much, in advance of development.
involves the novice (student) working with more capable others (teachers
or parents) on challenging tasks s/he could not solve independently. The
more able participants (or the experts) model appropriate problem solving
behaviours, present new approaches to the problem, and encourage the novice
(or the student) to use her or his embryonic skills by assuming responsibility
for some parts of the task. As novices develop the abilities required,
they should receive less assistance and solve more of the problem independently. Simultaneously, of course, they will encounter yet more challenging tasks
on which they will continue to receive help. Effective teaching learning
transactions thus establish successive ZPD's.
all of the aforementioned, it bears repeating that Vygotsky's works has exerted tremendous
influence on educational psychology, especially over the past 40 years,
as witnessed by numerous books, book chapters and journal articles. An
educator-turned-psychologist, Vygotsky's writings clearly reflect his pedagogical
concerns. For Vygotsky, the place called 'school' and other informal educational
situations represented the best culture laboratories in which to study
thinking. He emphasized the social organization of instruction, writing
about the unique form of cooperation between the child and the adult as
the central element in the educational process. In short, his emphasis
on the social context of thinking represented the reorganization of a key
social system and associated modes of discourse, with potential consequences
for developing new forms of thinking.
I will only
complete this informal discussion on Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, the man,
by stating one final comment. Vygotsky showed those of us in the educational
arena that the development of mentally and physically handicapped children
follows the same laws as that of normal children. His research demonstrated
the possibility of compensating for intellectual and sensory defects by
developing higher psychological functions rather than training elementary
ones. He viewed the processes of compensation as the result of an independent
exercise of the impaired function, the guided development of the intact
aspects of mental activity, and the handicapped child's personality.
Luria was indeed correct when he once commented that Vygotsky was truly a genius!
1 The original version of this
commentary appeared in the February / March 1998 issue of the University of
Ottawa Chapter 0195 Phi Delta Kappa News newsletter. This
(slightly) revised version was reprinted here for the benefit of becoming
teachers who attended a series of January 2002 classroom management
lectures at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Education, Teacher Education
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