Explain the Vygotskian notion of the zone of proximal development. Evaluate the efficacy of approaches to teaching and learning [eg. reciprocal teaching, cognitive apprenticeships, and communities of learners] which incorporate this notion.
Many theorists throughout the century have developed concepts that have analysed and explained how a child learns during their schooling years. Educational theorist Lev Vygotsky produced the social development theory of learning. He believed social interaction is the primary cause of cognitive development. He named this the zone of proximal development. There are many approaches to learning in the zone of proximal development such as scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, cognitive apprenticeships and communities of learning, each with their own unique way of transporting the learner into an easier more motivated state of learning.
Compared to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development where the child is seen to go through four stages of development; sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations, Vygotsky believed that the cognitive developmental process should be analysed through social contexts. He believed that this was a lifelong process that was influenced by social interaction with family, teachers, and friends in the cultural community surrounding the student. He emphasised the instruments that specific cultures provide to maintain thinking, and the idea that children use the instruments they’re given to build their own comprehension of the physical and natural world. He named this the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky defines this as “the distance between the actual development 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” (Vygotsky, 1978, cited from McInerney and McInerney, 2006,part 1,ch 2,p58).
During this time cognitive development takes place. Throughout this development the child is said to go through four stages of growth (Gallimore and Tharp, 1990): 1. Assistance: in their routine from other more capable peers, parents, and teachers. 2. Growing independence: from their more capable peers as they begin to build their own ideas by using self directed speech and assume responsibility for their learning. 3. Automation of response: they develop, make the movement of idea automatic and internalise their thinking.
Assistance from others is not needed. 4. De-automatisation and recursion: constant practice of routine is necessary so as not to lose the knowledge and re-enter the zone of proximal development. Sometimes there is always a movement between in and out of the zone of proximal development. Vygotskian principles are evident in everyday teaching practices and are maintained by parents, peers and teachers who believe that using a social constructivist perspective for education will give their child or students the opportunity to grow within themselves through the help of others from different levels of knowledge.
Vygotsky believed that the role of the teacher using the zone of proximal development for learning is to find an appropriate stage of complexity for the learner to handle. This is called assisted learning. Teachers provide “strategic help in the initial stages of learning, gradually diminishing as students gain independence” (Woolfolk, 2001, p49). The teacher must simplify tasks so that they are manageable for the student to deal with. This guidance or help is called scaffolding. It is the support for learning and problem solving. The support could be clues, reminders, encouragement, breaking down the problem into steps, providing and example, or anything else that allows the student to grow as an independent learner. They provide students with the opportunities to further extend their current skills and knowledge.
For example, think about a mathematics problem. Assume that the learner has made good progress and the time has come to learn how to do a Pythagoras theorem question. We know that the leaner cannot complete the task independently but has enough knowledge to master the problem with the help from a mathematics teacher. The learner is in the zone of proximal development and will be able to benefit from the scaffolding, in the form of explaining, demonstrating and guiding by the teacher. While doing this, teachers look for discrepancies between student’s effort and the solution they come up with.
They are looking to control the frustration and risk that the student encounters. Also they model an idealised version of the act of learning so the learner can use it to help them solve their educational problems (Hausfather, 1996). The key to getting students to help themselves learn independently is not to make the students reinvent information or rediscover it themselves. The teacher must make the information available for the learner to examine and work out their own ideas and solutions whilst allowing them to be open to advice from people who are more informed on the subject. So although scaffolding is an extremely helpful tool for teachers to use in their teaching and their student’s learning, they must make sure that the child is educated in the right approach so as not to deter the child from making advances on their own educational capabilities.
Cognitive apprenticeships have proved very useful over the centuries as an effective form of education. The bond that is formed between master and apprentice is both personal and motivating. By working alongside more experienced people, young people are able to learn the tricks of the trade first hand. There is a creation of dialogue between student and teachers that goes beyond answering questions and engages in the discourse more informally (Driscoll, 1994). Communication is important between master and apprentice and the teacher must learn to properly use proxemics, paralanguage, and kinesics right for the outcomes to be reached. The performances required of the learner are real and important and grow more complex as the learner becomes more competent (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991).
Some academics believe that knowledge and skills learned in school have become separated from the everyday world. To compensate for this, many schools have adopted many of the features of apprenticeships. Apprenticeships in schools would focus on cognitive objectives such as reading, writing, problem solving and mathematical problems. There are six main features of cognitive apprenticeships: 1. Students observe an expert model the performance
2. Students get external support through coaching or tutoring 3. Students receive conceptual scaffolding, which is then gradually faded as the student becomes more competent and proficient 4. Students continually articulate their knowledge – putting into words their understanding of the processes and content being learned. 5. Students reflect on their progress, comparing their problem solving to an expert’s performance and to their own earlier performances 6. Students are required to explore new ways to apply what they are learning – ways that they have not practiced at the master’s side. (Woolfolk, 2001)
In the classroom there is normally one teacher to 30 or so students, so where is there time for cognitive apprenticeships? Often there are students on the class that are at a much higher level of capabilities than other less capable students. Teachers put these students into groups where they can learn at a comfortable rate whilst have been immersed in a master and apprentice style learning environment.
An example of a cognitive apprenticeship is the notion of reciprocal teaching. This is a method based on modelling, to teach reading comprehension strategies. The goal of reciprocal teaching is to help students understand and think deeply about what they read (Palincsar, 1986). Palincsar’s research has focused attention on strategies that improve reading comprehension. In Brown and Palincsar’s 1989 case study students and teachers took it in turns to lead small group discussions on an important issue. They were shown 4 reading strategies and the students began to teach themselves.
This type of educational style showed significant gains over other instructional strategies as they did not allow students to gradually teach themselves. Research on reciprocal teaching has shown some remarkable results. Most research was carried out with students who were younger adolescents who can read fairly accurately so therefore the research doe not have results and data from students who are in a different age group and who are not very capable in reading comprehension skills. So the overall research is not very reliable, however of the students that was involved their reading abilities improved. Those who were in the lower bottom half of their class moved up to average or above average level on tests of reading comprehension.
Palincsar has recognized there are three guiding principles for effective reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). 1. The shift from teacher control to student responsibility must be gradual. 2. The difficulty of the task and the responsibility must match the abilities of each student and grow as these abilities develop. 3. Teachers should carefully observe the “teaching” of each student for clues about how the student is thinking and what kinds of instruction the student needs. By considering reciprocal teaching, instructional approaches are used to emphasise social interaction between student’s active constructions of meaning.
In a community of learners, students and teachers together construct a culture that values the strengths of all participants and respects their interests, abilities, languages, and dialects. Students and teachers shift among the roles of expert, researcher, learner, and teacher, supporting themselves and each other. There are different ways to help create a community of learners. Collaboration is a technique that teachers and student can use to enrich their solutions to harder and complex problems. Students may work with small groups in the classroom, between small groups creating difference of opinions and with others on a larger scale.
One of the advantages of having students work in groups solving problems is that they will be called on to explain their proposed solutions to one another (Woolfolk, 2001). Putting solutions into words usually improves problem solving. Collaboration provides shared responsibility, enhanced communication, new questions, new answers, engaged learners and enthused teachers. Research suggests that computer technology is a cultural tool that mediates and internalises the students learning. Changing their learning contexts with different technology is a powerful learning activity (Crawford, 1996). With children learning more about computers at an earlier age they are able to interact with others that are not on the same level of ability as them, thus creating a technological community of learners.
Teaching students in the modern era can guarantee a more exciting and unpredictable learning experience sort out by many in society. Vygotsky perspectives uphold many beliefs about how students learn. The zone of proximal development was and still is challenging modern thinking about effective teaching and learning in philosophical ways. By examining Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development teachers are able to recognise that students of similar ages will be experiencing similar concerns and interests but there will be differences for each individual. Each student is different. Different from adults, different from each other and as such teachers have to provide for these individual differences in each area of learning. The learning process is very active.
Vygotsky emphasises the need for experience and social interaction and that they play a key role in development. The development of a student is an important factor in deciding on the subject matter to be taught, the resources and knowledge experiences to present, the teaching strategies to be used and the procedures for evaluating learning. In order to appreciate, transmit, correspond and cooperate with students, teachers and peers must know how they think feel and act at different ages. They must learn to use the zone of proximal development to help their students determine their own opinions and ideas on life itself in the classroom and in the home community. From assisted learning and the scaffolding style of teaching, to cognitive apprenticeships and a full community of learners, students are able to mature their knowledge levels through the zone of cognitive development so as to become a stronger and more inquisitive student during their educational years of schooling.
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