Applying Vygotsky to the classroom
Vygotsky's stresses the importance of looking at each child as an
individual who learns distinctively. Consequently, the knowledge and
skills that are worthwhile learning varies with the individual.
overall goal of education according to Vygotsky is to "generate and lead
development which is the result of social learning through
internalisation of culture and social relationships." He repeatedly
stressed the importance of past experiences and prior knowledge in
making sense of new situations or present experiences. Therefore, all
new knowledge and newly introduced skills are greatly influenced by each
student's culture, especially their family environment.
Language skills are particularly critical for creating meaning and
linking new ideas to past experiences and prior knowledge. According to
Vygotsky, internalized skills or psychological tools "are used to gain
mastery over one's own behavior and cognition." Primary among these
tools is the "development of speech and its relation to thought."
ZPD and Scaffolding
Tasks that are set for the child need
to be pitched at the right level. Tasks that are too difficult are
outside the child’s ZPD, and regardless of the amount of help in the
form of scaffolding, the gap can not be bridged. If the task is too
easy the child will not be motivated.
scaffolding the first step is to build interest and engage the learner.
Once the learner is actively participating, the given task should be
simplified by breaking it into smaller subtasks. During this task, the
teacher needs to keep the learner focused, while concentrating on the
most important ideas of the assignment. One of the most integral steps
in scaffolding consists of keeping the learner from becoming frustrated.
The final task associated with scaffolding involves the teacher modeling
possible ways of completing tasks, which the learner can then imitate
and eventually internalize.
As Wood et al (1976) put it; if a child
is succeeding at a task then adult assistance can be reduced. Similarly
if the child is struggling then greater assistance needs to be
provided. Wood (1988) studied primary school classes and concluded that
it is not possible for teachers to recognise the ZPD of 30 different
students. Instead, he argues, scaffolding is more appropriate for one
on one situations.
Bliss et al (1996) looked at the ways
scaffolding was being used in the science classes of 13 London Junior
schools (ages 7-11). The results showed that scaffolding was not being
used effectively and reported what they described as
Crossing the ZPD is
essential to Vygotsk’s theory.
This can only be accomplished with help from MKOs (more knowledgeable
MKOs provide the scaffolding or support needed.
I picture teachers and
other MKOs as a ‘ferrymen’ transporting the child from one bank to the
Role of the teacher
Vygotsky's view, the teacher has the "task of guiding and directing the
child's activity." Children can then solve novel problems "on the basis
of a model they has been shown in class." In other words, children learn
by solving problems with the help of the teacher, who models processes
for them in a classroom environment that is directed by the teacher. In
essence, "the child imitates the teacher through a process of
re-creating previous classroom collaboration."
Peer tutoring and the MKO
Vygotsky defined those who are to teach as the "More Knowledgeable
Other." The MKO is anyone who has a better understanding or a higher
ability level than the learner, particularly in regards to a specific
task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a
teacher or an older adult. However, this is not always the case. Other
possibilities for the MKO could be a peer, sibling, a younger person, or
even a computer. The key to MKO is that they must have more knowledge
about the topic being learned than the learner does. Teachers or more
capable peers can raise the student's competence through the zone of
proximal development (ZPD).
Mixed ability groupings are essential.
In the classroom situation the more advanced child can act as tutor and
since he/she is of similar age they should have a good understanding of
the tutees situation and should also be working in the same ZPD.
Tudge (1993) found that the best peer
tutors are those who are significantly ahead of their tutees. However,
if the tutor lacks confidence or fails to provide the necessary
scaffolding then the tutoring is ineffective.
Barnier (1989) found that the
performance of 6 to 7 year olds on various spatial tasks was
significantly improved when they were tutored by 7 to 8 year olds.
Ellis and Gauvain (1992) found cross cultural support for peer tutoring
when they compared native North American Navahos with ‘Euro-American’
children. Both benefited from peer tutoring even though the methods
used by the two cultures were very different. The ‘Euro-Americans’
tended to give more spoken instructions and were generally less patient
with their tutees.
Peer tutoring is a vital element in
Shayer and Adey’s CASE project. After being introduced to a task and
provided with cognitive dissonance (disequilibrium), the students are
asked to work in groups. The idea being that the more able will be able
to encourage the less able.
Schools and Society
Not only does Vygotsky see the role of
the teacher as being vital he also views schools in a similar way. For
Vygotsky, society (and therefore social interaction) happens in schools.
incorporated into the larger society and have that as their context, so
that some of their activity settings are determined by this larger
For Vygotsky the classroom is also a
social organization that is representative of the larger social
community ... it is the social organisation ... that is the agent for
change in the individual
Schools are mini-societies!
Does cooperative group work improve motivation?
Nichols wanted to find out if children working in a group (Vygotsky)
would learn more effectively than if they were working alone in a more
American high school children were randomly allocated to one of three
groups (27 in each group) for the duration of an eighteen week term
9 weeks of cooperative group work followed by 9 weeks of traditional
9 weeks of traditional teaching followed by 9 weeks of cooperative group
18 weeks of traditional teaching
cooperative group work involved students being split into small groups
and being asked to complete problem solving activities as a team.
Motivation was assessed using a number of measures including patience,
persistence and desire to please teachers and parents.
found that groups 1 and 2 showed significantly higher levels of
motivation than group 3. Additionally the motivation levels of groups 1
and 2 were higher when they were in the 9 week phase of group work than
in the more traditional teaching environment.
an interesting study since it supports Vygotsky’s view on the importance
of group work, social interaction and peer tutoring. However, it also
seems to answer some of the critics of Vygotsky who claim he didn’t
consider the child’s motivation to learn as a variable in determining
its performance. Getting children to work in groups, as Vygotsky
suggested, seems to improve their level of motivation anyway.
Practical applications of Vygotsky’s work:
Several instructional programs were developed on the basis of the notion
of ZPD including
reciprocal teaching and
has been implemented as a measurable concept in the reading software “Accelerated
developers of Accelerated Reader describe it as "the level of
difficulty [of a book] that is neither too hard nor too easy, and is the
level at which optimal learning takes place" (Renaissance Learning,
STAR Reading software suggests a ZPD level, or it can be determined
from other standardized tests. The company claims that students need to
read books that are not too easy, so as to avoid boredom, and not too
hard, so as to avoid frustration. This range of book difficulty, so
claimed, helps to improve vocabulary and other reading skills.
Is a system of cognitive modelling
where the tutor will explain step by step and thought by thought what
they are doing whilst completing a task. The apprentice then imitates
this behaviour and thinking process whilst being observed by the tutor.
At crucial stages the tutor may intervene to provide additional support
or assistance (scaffolding). As the tutee becomes more expert at
completing the task the level of support provided can be reduced.
Vygotsky was well ahead of
his time in recognising the importance of educating children with
various learning impairments. He distinguished between ‘primary
defects’ (genetic or organic) and ‘secondary defects’ (due to
distortions of higher mental functions caused by social factors). When
dealing with these special needs the teacher needs to be aware that it
is the social consequences that are the most important. For example
when dealing with a child that is blind, recognise that their condition
is genetic but address how this condition is affecting their ability to
interact with others since this ultimately determines what the child is
able to learn.
To this end he believed that
even severely handicapped children should be educated in the mainstream
(i.e. attend ‘normal’ schools). In the 1920s and 1930s this was almost
unheard of but is far more likely to be practised today. Again signs of
how ahead of his time Vygotsky was.
He noted that "a child whose
development is impeded by a disability is not simply a child less
developed than his peers; rather, he has developed differently.
In fact it has been suggested that he was so far ahead of his time the
rest of psychology still hasn’t caught up. For example Vygotsky
believed that social and cognitive development were so interwoven that
they were essentially one and the same thing.
Recently there have been
attempts to use Vygotsky’s theory to help in our understanding of moral
development. In his book ‘Educational Psychology’ not translated into
English until 1997, Vygotsky does include one chapter on moral
development. Again, as we’ll see later, Piaget came up with a more
detailed theory of moral development himself.