Why Lev Vygotsky keeps me awake at night

I was up late last night arguing with my arch-enemy Harry Webb aka @webofsubstance. I think it fair to say Harry and I have divergent views on education, nevertheless, we are always careful to be polite and try hard to end our disagreements on a friendly note. The topic of last night’s discussion was a sentence in Harry’s latest blog: [Ref] where he stated, “Social Constructivism is a type of discovery learning.”  [Note: see below]

This is like a red rag to a bull for me, and I bit (rather too prematurely) Tweeting: “@websofsubstance sorry to be blunt, but you need to do some more reading if you think discovery learning is the same as social constructivism”. Now this wasn’t really the point of Harry’s article – which I should have read more closely before jumping to conclusions and sending a rather rude Tweet – the focus of his ardour being the dimwit educationalists who keep telling teachers they should just leave children alone to learn without guidance.

Over the course of the next five hours we argued back and forth on the meaning and use of the term Social Constructivism. Which, I’m sure, to many people must seem like a kind of madness. However, there was a serious issue at stake, one both of us were eager to resolve, me probably more than Harry.

I should explain the reason I got so upset with Harry’s assertion is because it contradicts everything I believe about education. For me, the theory of social constructivism is a heuristic for thinking about learning, its not a ideology nor is it a teaching approach. Based on the work of Lev Vygotsky [Ref], in particular his psychological model of learning called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), social constructivism is an explanation for how learning happens in the human mind, creating meaning by joining new knowledge to pre-exciting patterns in the brain. It is not a pedagogy, a teaching strategy or still less a dogma.

But this is how Harry was encountering it in his setting and why he was, in his turn, also getting very annoyed.

Despite all our differences, the one thing Harry and I share is a resentment of being told how to teach. Especially if it is by people who are telling us to do things, justified by using ideological arguments, which we know are not in the best interests of our students. This is annoying both because theories from psychology are highly contingent and because it denies us our professional judgement and expertise.

For me, a theory and an approach to teaching and learning is only as good as its utility in the classroom. I’m constantly interested in new ideas that might help me better understand the complex process of education and I strive as much as I can to become better at my job. But new ideas have to be generative and productive, increasing my knowledge and widening my repertoire of skills. I’m not interested in ideas that look to tell me how to think rigidly or look to limit my options for planning and teaching. Why I find the theory of the ZPD so convincing is that I see confirmation of it everyday, both in the classroom when I teach and in my daily life. It is a useful and coherent heuristic that helps me create new ideas and ways of thinking. And I get very upset when I think it is being used as the justification for preferring one teaching approach over another and for limiting opportunities for learning.

In my understanding of social constructivism the whole theory rests on the ZPD, therefore anything that comes from that theory – ideas about learning, teaching strategies etc – must match the terms of the ZPD. It they don’t then they are not genuinely social constructivist. In the examples Harry sites in his article (and much of what I subsequently learnt is on Wikipedia [Ref]) does not conform to this basic principle. The assumption, made by these theorists, is that social constructivism is about groups of children being left alone to make meaning. Activities are designed to give students the time and scope to discover learning outcomes and the teacher’s job is to facilitate the learning. This is not what Vygotsky advocates in his paper on the ZPD, Interaction Between Learning and Development [Ref: Ch.6 Mind & Society],

“what we call the zone of proximal development. It is 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.” (p.79)

Notice please, “problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” Vygotsky is not telling teachers to leave the kids alone. He’s explicitly saying the opposite. Vygotsky uses the term ‘mediation’ rather than facilitation to describe the role of the teacher, which is far more dynamic and interactive:

“the zone of proximal development permits us to delineate the child’s immediate future and his dynamic developmental state, allowing not only for what already has been achieved developmentally but also for what is in the course of maturing.” (p.80)

Thus, a teacher aware of the ZPD is constantly responding, adapting and adjusting her planning and teaching to the developing landscape of learning happening in her classroom. The main tool of mediation is the planning of activities, creating various opportunities for extending her student’s development within the ZPD. The teacher’s expert judgement is in the selection of activities that are challenging enough (without being too difficult), appropriate and useful to the stage in her student’s education.

Vygotsky is clearly not advocating or privileging one pedagogical approach over another. Why would he?

In conclusion, I’d like to share my very simple recipe for creating a pedagogy:

1. Take one learning theory: I like the Zone of Proximal Development (what I’ve always called social constructivism)

2. Add, three teaching approaches: Direct instruction, discovery, and inquiry (mix and use appropriately, don’t forget one or your pedagogy won’t be as good)

3. Practice, reflect and develop – the more you work on it, the better it will be.

That’s it. There is one warning, it usually takes about 10 years to make well.

My message for today: Don’t let others restrict your repertoire.

[Note: Harry later changed the sentence on his website to reflect the conclusions of our conversation, it now reads: “Constructivism expressed as a pedagogy therefore becomes a type of discovery learning.“]

Some links (thanks to @PsychologyMarc @bentleykarl & @NGT67 :

1. Lev Vygotsky Archive 

2. Readings on the Development of Childhood

3. Mind & Society

4. Ch.6 Interaction Between Learning & Development


Leave a comment
  1. peter August 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    I understand ZPD as you have explained above. I had to do some work on it in a similar, before Twitter, discussion I had with a fellow head teacher about what she exactly meant by working with your partner was or was not the same as ZPD working. But I am not convinced that ZPD says very much. It seems to say that kids learn when the challenge is just above their current understanding. And that someone who knows more can help the learner in this learning process. You see it as more than that, I guess?

    • Tim Taylor August 2, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

      I know what you mean, but I think the ZPD needs to be put into the context of its time. LV was in conversation with Piaget and his theories were developed as a response to Piaget’s views on learning and development.
      My blog was not really to explore the nuances and implications of LV’s theories but to answer the assertion that social constructivism is only discovery learning. A progressive wolf in social constructivist sheep’s clothing. A view I fundamentally disagree with.

  2. Mary Myatt August 2, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Well you turned this out quickly, well done! Saw your interchange with wos this morning and was interested to see where it would go. Balanced, properly referenced and profound common sense.

    • Tim Taylor August 2, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

      Thank you Mary, I’m glad I found the copy of Mind and Society online, it made my job much easier.

  3. bt0558 August 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Top notch post, thank you.

    First comment said….

    “I am not convinced that ZPD says very much. It seems to say that kids learn when the challenge is just above their current understanding”

    I know what the commenter means, it is a bit like Newton and gravtation, I don’t think he said very much. All he said was that gravitational force is inversely proportional to distance or something similar and anyone knows that.

    Keep up the good work Tim.

    • Tim Taylor August 6, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

      Thank you, you’re very kind. Like most great ideas, they are so obvious after they have discovered.

Leave a Reply


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: