Thinking about the inner-workings of the brain, how it functions and how it develops really gives credit to how incredible the human mind is. Our latest educational influencer, Lev Vygotsky, was very passionate about psychology, including learning and development. Before we dive into his theories on learning and development, let’s get to know a bit more about the man behind the theory.
Lev Vygotsky was born in Belarus in November of 1896. In 1912 at university in Moscow he began studying law, philosophy and history. Vygotsky had a large interest in poetry, language, semiotics and issues of history and philosophy prior to his research contributions in psychology. After university, Vygotsky taught psychology, eventually teaching at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow in 1924 where he truly delved into his passion for the theory of psychology.
In his study, The Interaction Between Learning and Development, Vygotsky tried to better understand and explain how learning and development are connected when it comes to school-age children. In the introduction to his study, Vygotsky highlights three pre-existing theories that he claims have gotten the relationship between learning and development wrong:
- The assumption that development is a pre-requisite for learning, that a student must be at a certain intellectual level before learning a certain subject
- Learning and development are one and the same and are inseparable
- A combination of the two aforementioned theories
In order to get to the heart of the relationship between learning and development, Vygotsky said we must realize that children are constantly learning, even before school. Any learning they encounter in school will be something they have experienced before, as best put by Vygotsky himself: “Learning and development are interrelated from the child’s very first day of life.” For example, when children ask a million questions to gain new knowledge or imitate adults to learn new skills like speaking.
Vygotsky claimed that there are two developmental levels that must be established to determine the connection between the developmental process and learning capabilities.
Actual Developmental Level
This level of development is a more traditional way of determining somebody’s skill set. A child is given a selection of tests and their mental ability is determined by how they perform. These tests judge children on their ability to perform independently, based on what they already know.
Vygotsky saw a few problems with the actual developmental level functioning on its own. First, if students are being categorized based on skills they already know, they are left to learn skills they have already achieved, limiting the development of new skills.
Secondly, Vygotsky theorized that if a student’s peers or teacher were able to provide guidance to help them achieve a higher level of development, a child should not be held to what they were only able to learn independently. These thoughts are what lead to one of Vygotsky’s most well-known theories:
The Zone of Proximal Development
In his study, Vygotsky defined the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as, “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 adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”
Instead of limiting children based on what they can only do on their own, Vygotsky said we should be encouraging them to extend and enhance their learning. By working collaboratively with others, children are able to open up new avenues of learning, developing skills they might not have been able to achieve on their own. As Vygotsky put it, “these functions could be termed the ‘buds’ or ‘flowers’ of development rather than the ‘fruits’ of development.”
By addressing a student’s unique skill set and level of ability instead of slotting them into a predetermined path of learning, they are able to mature their skill level: what they can’t do without assistance today, they will be able to accomplish in the future.
Role of imitation in learning
One of the concepts discussed by Vygotsky that influence the ZPD is learning by imitation. For example, if a child is shown how to complete a task by a more knowledgeable other, they are able to better understand and eventually learn how to do the task themselves. By imitating adults, children learn how to walk and talk. By imitating the solution of a math equation laid out by a teacher, a student can grasp the solution as well.
“Learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers,” said Vygotsky. Furthermore, the development of skills in the ZPD will eventually become internalized and will no longer need to be learned in a group setting, becoming an independent developmental achievement.
In current pedagogical discussions, Vygotsky’s theory is more commonly known as scaffolding – just like the structures used to provide support to buildings under construction. In 1976, David Wood came along and coined the term scaffolding – a process “that enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts.” A tutor or adult controls the elements that the child does not understand, allowing them to focus and solve what they do understand. Eventually, with the help of the more knowledgeable other, the student will be able to learn how to complete the task on their own.
The concepts are very similar, however it is a little easier to relate scaffolding to the idea (the knowledgeable other is the scaffolding that supports the child/building until it achieves development).
Vygotsky and Woods have undoubtedly contributed to how we view and understand the relationship between learning and development today. However, it is also important to give Vygotsky a shout out for making waves when it came to challenging existing theories. By thinking outside the box and supporting his ideas with research, he was able to fundamentally change the way we approach learning and development for the better.