My friend Ann and I exchanged letters in October 2007 as part of her exploration of learning for a graduate class she was taking. In her letter she mentioned Rousseau, Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky. Semi-familiar names, they were, but it had been years since I read about Rousseau or Piaget. I am now having the pleasure of (re)discovery as I encounter them, one at a time, in Theories of Development by William Crain. I am seriously considering the purchase of the Fifth Edition of this book, partially for my library, but mostly so I can mark it up with notes in the margin!
Lev Vygotsky had a short but active life (1896-1934). I understand his theory of development as tying together nature and nurture: Nature is the “natural line” of development that takes place within a child. Nurture is the “social-historical line” that comes from the external environment. This theory of development blended his readings of Piaget and others with his Marxist beliefs.
Marx, Engels and Vygotsky all felt that environmental context fostered developmental growth. To better make use of the world around them, people develop tools. These tools are physical as well as cognitive. Vygotsky called the cognitive tools “signs“, and the use of signs impacts an individual’s behavioral responses to the environment. Examples of cognitive tools include speech, writing, and numbering systems. Vygotsky believed that “cultural sign systems have a major impact on cognitive development.” Essentially, we need words and ideas to describe and harness the culture in which we live.
I first heard of Vygotsky in reference to the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). It took three explanations of the concept to clarify the meaning for me. I understand the ZPD to be a range within which the learner is poised to experience new learning.
A learner develops at their own pace, regardless of external instruction and curricula. When a learner is developmentally disposed towards new learning – when they are in their ZPD – they are on the frontier, ready for new learning. This is how I initially understood the zone of proximal development. However, Vygotsky described it 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.
This explanation suggests ZPD as being the area beyond the learner’s comfort zone – they are actually in the frontier, where they can learn with assistance from others. In fact, they need the assistance of others because the frontier is so new.
If any reader would like to elaborate or clarify ZPD, please go ahead and do so!