Lev Vygotsky was a pioneering Russian psychologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose interest in the fields of developmental psychology, education and culture led to his being known as “the father of cultural-historical psychology”. A prolific author who researched relationships between thought, language, speech and play, Vygotsky studied the development of cognitive skills in children and developed a concept known as the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). He 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” .
Arguing against the use of tests to examine a child’s progress, Vygotsky said that what should be measured is a child’s ability to problem-solve independently, rather than with assistance. Real learning takes place in the ZPD, according to Vygotsky and the later psychologists who developed his idea further. This ZPD is the area of growth which is just beyond the current ability of the learner but not so far as to be impossible or demoralising. If the level is set so low that the child has already mastered the task, or so high that the student cannot achieve it without considerable assistance, effective learning will not take place. The ZPD is the zone where the student, aided by a teacher or expert, can stretch to the point just beyond their current capabilities. This is where learning is internalised and previous skills can be built upon, according to Vygotsky.
Later psychologists and educationalists elaborated on Vygotsky’s idea of the ZPD by introducing the concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding is the provision of sufficient support to learners that they are able to reach their ZPD. The support offered is only enough to allow the student to build on prior knowledge and skills and is gradually reduced and removed as the learner enters his or her ZPD. Examples of instructional scaffolding are resource materials, visual aids, templates, guidelines and verbal or written demonstration.
The concepts of ZPD and instructional scaffolding are now applied wider than Vygotsky’s original context of problem-solving to a range of educational domains such as reading, reciprocal teaching and problem-based learning. Many researchers now believe that young children learn their native language while in their zone of proximal development, with scaffolding provided by their parents as the child’s skills develop.
The ZPD has particular resonance for highly able learners. In many classrooms the material regularly presented to them would be within their current ability level and therefore would not bring them into their zone of promixal development. All students need to be required to work in their ZPD on a regular basis, including gifted learners. Where most students experience this level of challenge daily, highly able children for whom the regular curriculum holds less challenge may not. In order to internalize the learning process, to experience the stretching of their capability beyond what is easily achievable we must find a way to ensure that gifted pupils enter their ZPD. Effective differentiation can go some way to this goal.
In a paper entitled “Different Differentiation” Paul and Sharon Ginnis outline eight different strategies which teachers can use to ensure that every pupil works in their ZPD. They recommend setting the parameters by planning the task between the outcome projected for their most able and their least able learners. The ZPD of the class is within this. The two factors of the challenge of the task and the skill of the individual learner will determine the outcome. If the gap between these two factors is either too big or too small, outcomes will be less successful. Interestingly, they point out that in both cases (too little challenge or too much) the likely result is the same, that of disengagement and underachievement.
The strategies they describe cover a range of teaching approaches, from a higher level of teacher control to a more student-controlled task. From setting a task above and below the core task expected of the majority of the class, through peer-coaching and ability grouping, all the way to what they label “self-service” there is a menu of styles. Each of them have at their centre the goal of having each student work in their ZPD. For exceptionally able children, opportunities to work in the types of learning environments described would allow them to learn how to synthesize their learning and how it feels to be challenged to reach a goal. These are not usual outcomes for highly able children in Irish classrooms who often find themselves with little or no challenge for long periods of time. We need fresh approaches and an increased awareness that opportunity of challenge is essential for all learners and that gifted pupils need this as much as any other. It is not exclusive or elitist or selfish, it is only fair.
Link to the paper on “Different Differentiation” is here
More on Lev Vygotsky can be found here