Lev Vygotsky & ZPD

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!

6 thoughts on “Lev Vygotsky & ZPD

  1. Pingback: Developmental Sensation = ZPD | Yoga ~ Dance ~ Music ~ Movement

  2. Pingback: Play and Games « Neurons Firing

  3. Ken allan

    Kia ora e Laurie

    Vygotsky was a child psychologist who studied mainly the development of the very young child in the close environment of her mother. He died (1934) before the transistor was invented, well before the emergence of the microchip, and certainly decades before the term ‘online’ was used to describe a possible means of collaboration.

    I have a lot of respect for Vygotsky as an observer and as a scientist. However, I cannot subscribe to some of the posthumous extemporisation of Vygotsky’s studies. The collaboration, in the context of what Vygotsky observed between mother and young child, cannot be extrapolated the way some educational theorising would have us believe is possible.

    I have listened to polemics talk of Vygotsky’s work, being not only totally dismissive of the context of his observations, but also of the time that they were made, claiming that he published findings as recently as 1972! Pustumous publication of some of his writing, much revised and edited, did in fact occur at that time.

    Attempts have even been made to suggest that his study and theory can be applied to so-called collaborative learning in an online environment. It is simply bad science to do this.

    Catchya later

  4. synapsesensations Post author

    HI Ken,

    Thank you for this clarification! Yes, it does help, and brings home the point that collaboration can be a most helpful way to expand one’s learning, particularly if you look at learning with a guide/teacher as a collaboration.


  5. Ken Allan

    Kia ora e Laurie!

    Lev Vygotsky said in his celebrated Mind And Society:

    “The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state.”

    In that chapter where he introduces for the first time the idea of ZPD, he is discussing the measure of the potential of the child (learner) to develop. He makes a distinct comparison between what the learner is capable of accomplishing and the child’s potential to learn more given the developmental state that it has reached.

    In attempting to identify this ability, he clearly refutes that anything the learner can do as being of any use for this. What he emphasises, however, is that what the learner can accomplish given immediate assistance from another (or others), and beyond the zone of development, is a more useful indicator of that potential. It is a true zone, for it can extend a considerable way from the zone of competence (what the learner can accomplish without assistance).

    I hope this is of some help.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

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