L.S. Vygotsky and Education – Luis C. Moll, 2014

If you have qualified as a teacher in the last ten years there is every chance Lev Vygotsky’s ideas on education played a significant part in your training. Born in Belarus in 1896, Vygotsky’s life was cut short in 1934 when he died from TB. Yet in the few years he worked as an educational psychologist, Vygotsky made significant discoveries and laid out a systematic theory for teaching and learning that for many represents the groundwork for modern day pedagogy.

His central idea is that human beings learn in social-cultural environments with the support and guidance of those who know more. Famously termed, the zone of proximal development, socio-cultural environments, such as classrooms, ideally operate as supportive arenas for developing young minds.

The zone of proximal development then, is a continuum between what a child can do independently, representing his or her actual level of development, and what the child can do with assistance from others, representing the proximal level of development. This places the teacher at the centre of the learning process, alongside the children in their class. Vygotsky’s ideas are not (as often portrayed) ‘child-centred’, rather they are community centred, where the teacher is neither led by the whims of their class nor delivering the curriculum like a series of parcels.

Vygotsky’s ideas represented a significant challenge to contemporary learning theory in America and the UK when they were first translated into English in the early 1980s. Unlike Piaget and other ‘progressives’, Vygotsky didn’t see human beings as exclusively natural learners, for him the social-cultural-historical dimensions of learning were just as important. He came to understand learning was not a matter of discovering the world as it is through experience, rather it is a social-construction made possible through interaction with people (especially teachers) who know and can do more. Vygotsky’s ideas place community at the centre of the learning process, where participants, both students and teachers, play an active and conscious role in bringing learning and development about in their social interactions.

Unlike Discovery Learning theory, where the teacher creates opportunities for students to find out things for themselves and then gets out of the way. Or Transmission Learning theories where the teacher stands at the front of the class to efficiently communicate knowledge to well-trained receivers. Vygotsky’s Social Constructivist theory sees teaching and learning as a processes of mediation by means of social/cultural tools, especially language. Learning, therefore, is something that is made within the culture of the group. Built on existing layers of knowledge and understanding with the help of someone who knows more. A bit like constructing a bridge across a river, brick by brick, starting at one end and finishing at the other. The teacher’s job, in this process, is to plan the activities and to supply the appropriate level of support (or scaffolding) needed for the project to succeed.

Like most theories from the worlds of psychology and cognitive science, Vygotsky’s ideas have been simplified and distorted on their way into the classroom. Under the Blair administration, the ZPD became the ‘personalised learning agenda’, turning teachers into whirling dervishes, planning at all hours to create individual learning ‘journeys’ for each one of their students. And, assessment for learning, became ‘individual layered targets’, turning the process of learning into a frantic, always moving, scramble for onward progression; something like Gromit, in the Wrong Trousers, throwing track down in front of the train as it rushes out of control around the house.

Not unsurprisingly, some exhausted and disenchanted teachers have started to blame Vygotsky as the father of these terrible initiatives and his reputation has taken a bit of a battering over the last few years. To my mind, this is unfortunate. Vygotsky cannot be held responsible for the target-setting mania of our current education system, anymore than Newton can be blamed for the Reliant Robin. The zone of proximal development and Vygotsky’s other ideas were meant as diagnostic theories – ways of explaining how people (especially children) learn in formal and informal social settings – they were not intended as heavy-handed planning and assessment tools for turning classrooms into mechanistic target factories.

If like me, you came across Vygotsky at University and have heard his name many times since but never really understood what the zone of proximal development meant, then this is the book for you. Written by Luis Moll as part of the Routledge ‘Key Ideas in Education’ series, it is an excellent introduction for busy teachers. Clear and concise, it gets to the heart of why Vygotsky is (and deserves to be) a major figure in modern day pedagogy.


This blog was first published in Teach Primary

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