Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist, sociologist and educationalist. His ideas and theories have been influential in the field of education, and has been used to improve instructional practices.
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) vs Zone of Actual Development (ZAD)
One of Vygotsky’s main contributions to education is his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) theory. According to this theory, ZPD can be defined in terms of a “zone” that lies between what a child can immediately achieve without assistance and what he can accomplish in collaboration with a knowledgeable peer (1).
According to Vygotsky, this “zone” is predominantly detectable when a child’s innocent perception of the world and the way it functions engages with the scientific and methodized perception of an adult. Further Western interpretations of this theory shifted the focus from the reciprocity between pre-scientific and scientific perceptions of the world to a general image of this child-adult conceptual reciprocity as a developmental aid.
Vygotsky created the concept of cognitive learning zones. According to his theory, in the Zone of Actual Development (ZAD), students can complete tasks independently and unassisted and there is nothing new for them to learn. ZAD does not reflect development. Instead, it refers to knowledge and skills that have already been mastered by the learner. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) occurs when students cannot complete tasks without the guidance of an adult or knowledgeable peer. Put simply, ZPD represents the gap between what learners can do on their own and what they cannot accomplish without instructional help. According to Vygotsky, this is the zone where learning occurs as we master new material with help from a knowledgeable individual, shifting ZPD upward.
“Scaffolding” can be defined as the process of receiving support from learned individuals to master material. Just think of a house that is being built. The purpose of the scaffolding is to temporarily support the structure of the house until it can stand on its own. According to Vygotsky, this applies to learning as well: learners receive support from other knowledgeable people until they acquire complete mastery of the respective material. Think, for instance, about a parent who is teaching his kid to ride a bicycle. They will start with training wheels, then the parent will provide instruction and help the child hold the bicycle steady until the child is ready to ride on his own. Once the child rides the bicycle independently, his ZPD shifts upward and may include hands-free riding or stunts.
The role of play
Vygotsky’s theory also brings into discussion another vital concept: the role of play. In his view, children – and outstandingly young children – should be provided with opportunities to play and use their imagination, thus allowing them to improve their conceptual skills. According to Vygotsky, play fosters intellectual development by allowing children to replicate culturally-shaped, real activities. The use of imagination and the recognition of the inherent rules the recreated activities are based upon allow children to develop abstract thinking.
Language lies at the core of Vygotsky’s theory. According to him, children should be provided with as many opportunities as possible to reach inner speech, a fundamental stage in language acquisition that serves as the basis for all higher levels of functioning. Language not only supports writing and reading but also thinking and reasoning. In Vygotsky’s view, knowledge is built upon educational strategies that encompass interdisciplinary literacy, independent learning, individual coaching, group coaching, and classroom leadership. Additionally, teachers should act as facilitators and create cooperative learning environments based on guided discussions and Socratic dialogue (i.e. question-and-answer method) between students, thus fostering a deeper understanding and enhancing student motivation.
Starting from Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, numerous educational theorists developed strategies meant to promote deeper knowledge and Socratic dialogue, and create effective learning environments by providing small-group instruction. Fogarty (2) says:
Vygotsky’s theory suggests that we learn first through person-to-person interactions and then individually through an internalization process that leads to deep understanding (p. 77).
Vygotsky claims that learning always occurs within a social context from which it cannot be separated. In order to create a collaborative learning community, the employed instructional strategy should foster expert knowledge sharing and cooperation between students. On the whole, since real-world tasks are built upon each individual’s culturally-shaped skills, language, and experience, knowledge construction requires both expert-student and student-student cooperation.
How to help students master more challenging Tasks using Vygotsky’s Theories?
Even though Vygotsky’s learning theories were geared mainly toward children, they can be applied to learners of any age.
Let’s assume you are a reasonably-skilled puzzles solver and you are given the possibility to choose between:
- A puzzle created for children
- A puzzle published in a local paper
- A puzzle published in the New York Times.
Since the puzzle for children poses no challenge and the puzzle in the New York Times may be too difficult to solve, you will more than likely choose option 2. The reason behind this decision is that we prefer tasks that we deem challenging enough without risking to feel overwhelmed. In Vygotsky’s view, the same applies to learning. Vygotsky’s theory promotes the belief “What is learned must be taught” (3, p. 8).
There are two key elements from Vygotsky’s theory that should be applied to instruction:
- Make sure to provide coaching to your students during the learning process
- The new material must be challenging enough but not overwhelming
How to foster learning using Vygotsky’s theories
1. Provide as much support as possible
Make sure to offer your students all the possible support, especially when faced with new, challenging tasks. Depending on his/her level of ZPD, each student should be free to choose as much support as necessary. Here are some relevant examples:
In order to help your students understand how to address a specific task, you can provide examples of how similar cases were solved. For online classes, you can use short explanatory videos to introduce the new material. Oral explanations tend to be easier to understand than written ones.
B. Provide a list of relevant material (hard-copy or digital)
Make sure your students can easily access these resources. You can also provide links to additional online resources that could help them learn the new material. Provide lists of resources that may be useful.
C. Use checklists
Breaking complex tasks into smaller pieces will help your students feel that the task can be completed satisfactorily. For instance, you can start by asking your students to review material they already master.
2. The diversity of ZPDs in your classroom can turn into an advantage
While some of your students will rapidly gain ground toward mastery of the new material, some others will fall behind. If you form groups with mixed mastery levels, the advanced students can help those who are less advanced. Since your advanced students have their own learning needs, it is of vital importance to keep them motivated by adding new challenges, tasks, etc.
A. Have your advanced students coach students who are falling behind
Many advanced students take this tutoring opportunity as a challenge, even if it won’t win them extra course credit.
B. Mixed group problem-solving
Use mixed groups to collaboratively find the solution to a given task or problem.
C. Pair your students to teach one another
Pair your students and have them alternately teach new material to each other, making sure they provide feedback as they advance. There are high chances for their ZPDs to vary. As a teacher, you must make sure that the new material your students teach to each other is correct.
3. Take the time to review previous material
By doing so, you will make sure that your students are approximately in the same ZPD. Learning new material should be based on previously mastered material. Nonetheless, there might be students who haven’t achieved the necessary level of mastery. Reviewing previous content can only be beneficial. Here are some ideas on how to review material:
A. Allow students to ask a follow-up question related to previous material
Whether they ask for further clarifications or they trigger new connections, these questions will promote classroom learning, especially if they are answered through discussion.
B. Use quizzes on previous material to assess student mastery
You can either opt for a graded quiz or an ungraded one that students can check themselves. If you want to make sure that your students review previous material before class, you can inform them beforehand that they will have to take a quiz.
C. Ask your students to summarize previous material
Asking your students to summarize previous material will not only allow you to assess prior knowledge but will also keep them motivated. You can do so before you introduce new concepts or while explaining the relationship between the previous material and the new one.
- Daniels, H. (2001). Vygotsky and pedagogy. New York: Routledge Falmer
- Fogarty, R. (1999). Architects of the intellect. Educational Leadership, 57(3), 76-78.
- Wilhelm, J.D. (2001). Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy, 6-12.