Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 1 Educational Applications of Vygotsky:The Zone of Proximal Development and the Academic Apprentice Michelle Thuma EDF 6215 University of South Florida
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 2 Introduction Russian psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) founded the socioculturaltheory of development. Vygotsky’s theory emphasizes the complex but critical interactionsbetween social, cultural, and personal factors, elements that weave together to create a learningenvironment that is as unique as the individual. Although Vygotsky’s work evolved at about thesame time as Piaget’s, Vygotsky was largely unknown outside Russia until 1962, when his bookThought and Language was the first of his works to be translated into English. Other worksfollowed, but it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that Vygotsky’s theory gained traction as atheory of education (Williamson, 2010). Since then it has received considerable attention. Discussions abound as to how histheory compares to Piaget’s theory of development (Schunk, 2007, p. 249; Duncan, 1995). Butas Schunk notes, fewer discussions address the adequacy of Vygotsky’s theory (2007, p. 249).Can the existing research support the notion that Vygotsky’s theory is applicable to educationalpractice? What does the research have to say about its effectiveness as a working theory ofteaching and learning? These are the questions I aim to address in this paper. For our purposes we will examine the research surrounding two specific concepts asdefined by Vygotsky’s theory: the zone of proximal development and the associated concept ofapprenticeship. According to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development, or ZPD, is “thedistance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solvingand the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adultguidance or in collaboration with more capable peers,” (1978, p. 86). The bottom level, or entrypoint, of this zone is where the learner can currently operate independently; the top level, ortarget objective, is where the learner currently cannot function without assistance. The teacher’s
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 3role here is to provide a framework to guide the learner through the zone, ultimately reaching thetop level of the zone. The teacher is successful if the learner completes the journey to the targetobjective and is able to operate independently at the higher developmental level. Vygotsky’s definition of ZPD includes the phrase “under adult guidance or incollaboration with more capable peers.” This definition includes teachers, but it certainly leavesroom for others as well. Tutors, parents, professionals, mentors, even classmates can fill the“more capable” role and guide the learner through the zone. Luckin and du Boulay (1999) definethe two participants of the ZPD in the most general terms, using simply the “less able” and the“more able” (p. 206). The term “apprenticeship” is often used to describe this workingrelationship (Schunk, 2007, p. 248), and that is the term we will use as well. The Current Practice of Teaching It is helpful to consider how classes are typically taught before discussing a Vygotskianapproach to teaching. The researchers involved in these studies had a lot to say on the subject.According to Hedegaard (1996), “the school’s task is generally considered to be the passing onof knowledge and skills, but the children do not necessarily develop a theoretical orientationtoward reality,” (p. 179). In other words, the “facts” imparted by typical teaching methods arenever tied to real-world applications. As a result, the information is labeled irrelevant andquickly forgotten. The students in Miller’s research echoed the same sentiment; one describedthe typical student’s role as a “vacuum cleaner that sucks up some facts that will be on the test,”(Anonymous, as cited in Miller, 1995, p. 3). In his study of building problem-based learning(PBL) strategies around Vygotsky’s concepts Harland reports, “most teaching is still organizedalong traditional lines with ‘teacher as expert’ and ‘teaching as telling,” (2003, p. 264). Perhaps
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 4most eloquent is Miller’s description of co-author Sharon Legge as the latter discovered analternate way of thinking, and subsequently, of teaching: In Friere’s (1970) terms, deeply ironic here for a language teacher, she felt herself filled up with others’ words, trained to learn others’ interpretations passively,and then became aware of herself as passing that attitude along to herstudents, reproducing a ‘culture of silence.’ (Miller & Legge, 1999, p. 24) Literature Review: Contextual Definitions Vygotsky’s theory suggests an intriguing framework for teaching and learning. But howdoes this theory apply to actual practice? Vygotsky believed that the most effective learningoccurred within, and was inseparable from, the unique sociocultural context in which it wasfound. Following the spirit of this belief, the researchers cited here all began their studies with anattempt to further define the zone of proximal development, and in some cases the apprenticerelationship, within the specific contexts of their own realms of study. For example, in her discussion regarding the application of Vygotsky’s theory to primaryschool science classes, Hedegaard (1996) envisioned a teaching scenario where children wouldenter the ZPD already possessing the traditionally taught “empirical” scientific knowledge theyneeded; once in the zone, the learners could be guided towards an understanding of how thoseconcepts might be used in an everyday context (p. 180). Hedegaard defines her version ofteaching within the zone as a “double move:” as the teacher moves from describing generalconcepts to demonstrating concrete examples, the students begin by exploring specific examplesof those concepts and gradually move towards a more theoretical understanding of the topic (p.180).
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 5 Murray and Arroyo (2002) define the ZPD for their context in this way: “The ZPD isneither a property of the learning environment nor of the student; it is a property of theinteraction between the two,” (p. 751). In their area of research, intelligent tutoring systems,Murray and Arroyo further define the zone in “computer understandable” terms, or in a way thatcan be measured: the zone is the place between where a student is bored (in computer terms, thestudent answers a set number of consecutive questions correctly), and where he is confused (incomputer terms, the student doesn’t answer a question, even with access to computer assistance).The researchers label these states as the “bored-zone” and the “confused-zone,” the two extremeouter ends of the ZPD (p. 751-752). One instructional framework that encourages, supports, and guides movement throughthe ZPD is often referred to as scaffolding. Though not a Vygotskian construct (Schunk, 2007, p.249), the term is useful for describing the ongoing and fluid process of controlling the parts ofthe task within the ZPD that the learner isn’t ready for yet, while giving them access to thoseparts they can master. Hodson (1999) gives a good description of this: “Scaffolding doesn’t alterthe essential nature of the task. Rather, it holds the task constant, while adjusting the nature ofthe learner’s participation through graduated assistance,” (p. 245). As Hodson notes, this processrequires a teacher who is sensitive to the learners’ individual needs, one who can determine whenthe learner is ready to proceed to the next step. As we will see, the apprentice relationship easily fits together with the concept ofscaffolding inside of the ZPD. This expert-novice relationship is commonly found betweenteachers and students, but the research selected for this paper addresses other relationships aswell, including tutors to tutees, peers to peers, and adaptive instructional systems to end users.Let’s take a look at how the researchers have defined this concept within their own realms.
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 6 According to Lave (1988), “Apprentices learn to think, argue, act, and interact inincreasingly knowledgeable ways with people who do something well, by doing it with them aslegitimate, peripheral participants,” (as cited in Hodson, 1999, p. 244). In his work withinscience education, Hodson takes Lave’s idea and expands upon it. He notes, “Developing anidentity as a member of the community and becoming more knowledgeable and skillful are partof the same process, with the former motivating, shaping, and giving meaning to the latter,” (p.244). Concerning the practice of scientific inquiry, Hodson outlined twin modeling roles for thescience teacher, that of “more expert learner” and of “more expert scientist.” The former modelstypical strategies for inquiry and investigation, while the latter demonstrates the basic scientificprocedures for the discipline (p. 247). During their investigation of assessing Vygotskian principles within the Ecolab, anadaptive learning system, Luckin and du Boulay (1999) first discussed the specific elements thatare found in a successful face-to-face apprenticeship. As they note, “The learning partner mustprovide appropriately challenging activities and the right quantity and quality of assistance,” (p.198). They subsequently used this definition to determine the adaptability of the Ecolab. During Miller’s observation of co-author Legge’s changing role within the teacher-student context of her literature classes, Miller notes, “[Legge] did not evaluate correctness ofstudent offerings but reacted as she wanted her students to, as what she called ‘a fellow reader’and interested participant,” (Miller & Legge, 1999, p. 34). Legge stepped into the role of “moreexpert learner,” modeling the desired behaviors that her students gradually began to adopt. Asthey grew more competent, Sharon gradually withdrew her support, in a series of intuitive stepsthat Miller called “sensitively scaffolded strategies,” (p. 44). Literature Review: Research Findings
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 7 The studies included here vary in their subject matter, target population, andmethodology. The common thread they share – and one of particular relevance to the secondquestion posed in this paper – is their evaluation of the effectiveness of Vygotsky’s principles asapplied to educational pursuits. Simply put, do Vygotskian principles improve learningoutcomes? Miller and Legge (1999) studied two of Sharon Legge’s literature classes: an 11th gradecollege-bound class and a 12th grade “at risk” class. During this seven-month study, Millerobserved Legge’s teaching methods and classroom interactions, conducted interviews, andexamined student writing samples. As Miller reports, “Through Sharon’s instructionalscaffolding… students not only learned the strategies Sharon scaffolded, but also the context fortheir use in the social dialogue,” (p.55). Additionally, she notes, “from students’ felt experiences,the issue of Sharon’s care and connectedness cannot be overemphasized as central to success ofdiscussion and student crossover from received to constructed knowing,” (p. 54). Harland (2001) conducted a study evaluating the effectiveness of an apprenticeshipprogram called the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PHCE), a two-year teachingprogram for PhD students offered at a UK university. His research led him to report a distinctadvantage in allowing PhD students to shadow full-time lecturers. Students who graduated fromthis program, Harland notes, demonstrated “changes in attitudes, greater confidence gainedthrough early successes in the PCHE and more rigorous approaches to study,” (p. 273). He didcite a few problems with the arrangement, however; for one, the “more established, but perhapsless skilled, lecturers” weren’t always enthusiastic at the prospect of having an apprentice in tow(p. 272). Harland points out that if universities were to consider a full apprenticeship program
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 8such as the PCHE, this and other issues would need to be carefully addressed, such as social andcultural biases, preconceived ideas about apprenticeships, and financial and time constraints. Harland conducted a second study (1999) examining the effectiveness of Vygotsky’sZPD as applied to problem-based learning (PBL) scenarios in a Zoology course. In this particulararticle, Harland discussed how Vygotsky came to influence the study about two years into thefive-year project (p. 265-266). Vygotsky’s ZPD was implemented along with a scaffoldingstructure supported by teachers and tutors, who functioned as “the more capable peer.” In hisarticle Harland discussed a number of challenges that arose during the course of the study. Firstwas the time and complexity involved in accurately pinpointing the students’ current level ofknowledge, which he felt was a requirement for determining the entry point of the ZPD. Second,despite the overall success of the study in terms of learning outcome, the teachers reportedhaving mixed feelings. Harland notes: When students arrived at a position where they could function well together and drive the enquiry forward, they seldom asked for help, and the teaching team no longer had their old roles and familiar student contact. Paradoxically, we felt somesense of loss at this stage and concluded that a lot of pleasure in teachinghad gone... (Harland, 1999, p. 271) Luckin and du Boulay (1999) studied the effectiveness of Vygotsky’s principles asapplied to the Ecolab, an interactive, adaptive educational system. The researchers defined twoadditional working “zones:” the zone of available assistance (ZAA), which is the entire array ofhelp available to the “more able partner”, i.e. the system, and the zone of proximal adjustment(ZPA), which is the portion of assistance that is currently selected by the system and madeavailable to the learner (p. 199-200). The system was designed to adjust the ZPA to meet each
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 9learner’s current developmental level throughout the learning process, as determined by learnerresponses. The study included two other non-Vygotskian variations of the Ecolab system forpurposes of comparison. The researchers determined that both the “Vygotskian Ecolab” andanother Ecolab variation (one that suggested help but left all decisions up to the learner) bothshowed positive results in terms of learning gain. Ryoki, Vaucelle, and Cassell (2003) studied the social role of technology using a “virtualpeer” named Sam. Sam, a childlike character projected onto a screen behind a real toy castle,played the role of “the more capable peer.” Using a slightly advanced vocabulary andstorytelling ability, Sam provided preschoolers with a social opportunity to learn language skills.By “taking turns” telling stories (via the ingenious use of an actual figurine, which when placedinside the castle, triggered Sam’s turn to talk), the study found that during the interactionchildren’s storytelling efforts became more sophisticated, reflecting Sam’s use of languageconstructs such as quoted speech and spatial expressions. Although this study certainly has itslimitations (for example, Sam did not have the ability to reflect thoughtfully on children’sstories), it provides intriguing evidence that computers can play a social role in learning. Methodology Most of the studies presented here relied on methodologies such as observation andinterview to collect data. This “in the field” approach seems to be appropriate, given theresearchers’ desire to understand how the theory might be used in practice. One notableexception was the Ecolab study, which relied on several measurable outcomes recorded by thesystem (such as frequency of student response and number of correct answers), and the results ofa post-test, administered to determine overall learning gain (Luckin & du Boulay, 1999).
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 10 All of the studies made an attempt to define Vygotsky’s concepts in terms appropriate totheir individual contexts. In the spirit of Vygotsky’s own sociocultural convictions, I believe thisis a crucial first step in both the application of and the study of sociocultural theory as applied toeducational pursuits. Future studies should certainly follow this standard and begin with acontextual definition of Vygotsky’s concepts. I particularly appreciated Miller and Legge’s study (1999) for its thorough methodology;seven months of observation, interview, and analysis of student writing between two verydifferent high school literature classes (“college bound” and “at risk”) resulted in a fascinatingstudy of comparison as two classes progressed through two very different zones. As a futureresearcher I would likely replicate Miller and Legge’s approach, using a different context, todetermine if similar successes might be achieved across disciplines. Discussion In a “face-to-face” environment, the research shows that Vygotskian principles canindeed be applied to a wide variety of contexts, if those principles are first defined contextually.Research findings were largely positive in terms of learning outcomes, although it is worthnoting that outside of researcher observation, no measurable comparison was made between theVygotskian environment and a more traditional environment in the same context; a simple post-test or other measurable assessment would improve the validity of research findings in this area. A number of studies reported encountering problems such as cultural and social bias;resistance or reluctance on the part of teachers, administrators, and even sometimes the students,as in Miller and Legge’s study (1999); and financial and time constraints. A few researchersnoted the risk involved for teachers attempting to teach in this way. Miller notes that Legge“risked sharing herself and her puzzlement in public to support students’ risking response,”
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 11(Miller & Legge, 1999, p. 53). Harland (2003) says of confronting cultural bias by usingproblem-based learning (PBL) strategies supported by Vygotskian concepts, “those who chooseto do so need a good deal of courage,” (p. 264). The Ecolab study (Luckin & du Boulay, 1999) was a notable outlier to the overallresearch results. While the Vygotskian version of the Ecolab performed well, another non-Vygotskian version also performed similarly well. This might suggest that Vygotsky’s principlesaren’t as applicable to this type of system, or perhaps other methods work equally well in thiscontext. While the Ecolab was adaptive and did adjust to learners’ individual needs, one mightraise the question as to whether it could be considered “a more capable peer” in a socioculturalcontext, in the true Vygotskian sense. This would be an interesting area for further research. Conclusion Two questions were posed at the beginning of this paper. One, can Vygotsky’s principlesbe applied to educational pursuits? And two, are Vygotskian teaching strategies effective? Dothey translate into positive learning outcomes? As to the first question, the research cited here supports the application of Vygotsky’sprinciples in the contexts included in these studies, with the possible exception of the adaptiveinstructional system. More research is needed, both to reinforce the current research findings andto extend the investigation into other contexts. For example, while the zone of proximaldevelopment may be highly successful in a literature or science class, results may well bedifferent in a math or history class. As to the second question, based on researchers’ “in the field” observations andinterviews, the Vygotskian method of teaching and learning seems to be effective for thecontexts included in these studies. More research is also needed here, to support the findings of
Educational Applications of Vygotsky Thuma 12existing studies and to determine if these successes can be replicated across disciplines. Theinclusion of measurable assessment tools such as post-tests may help to further validate thesefindings. The studies involving technology posed some interesting questions. Can socioculturalconcepts be incorporated into technological systems? Does technology have its own culture, or isit merely a tool functioning within an existing culture? Do these questions depend on the type oftechnology being used? The study involving “Sam” and the social role of technology wasfascinating, the study results encouraging. This will undoubtedly lead us in new directions forresearch as the technology continues to mature. Ultimately, despite the largely positive research findings, the true challenge forVygotskian practitioners may well be how to overcome the well-entrenched opinions and beliefsof what constitutes “accepted practice” in education. The attitudes and biases of teachers,administrators, and even students will need to be measured and carefully addressed in order tosuccessfully implement a Vygotskian approach to teaching and learning.
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