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More Nerdy Educational Theory-Vygotsky

alec vanderboom

One of the most facinating educational theorists I've run across is L.S. Vygotsky. (Now a word of warning, Vygotsky was a Jewish Russian theorist at the time of the 1917 Revolution. I'm a little cautious about how much of his Marxist ideology has impacted his educational theory. I haven't found any Catholic teaching that rules against his viewpoints, but I'm keeping my eyes open).

With that cavet in mind, Vygotsky's ideas are amazing. They aren't wildly known in the US yet because his books were only recently allowed out of the country.

Vygotsky invented this theory called "zone of proximal development" or ZPD. Imagine drawing two circles, one inside the other. The interior circle represents how the student can function independently. For example, my daughter can read and write her name, Hannah, and decipher street signs. Hannah's reading comprehension actually far exceeds these simple reading tasks. With assistance (i.e. someone else reading The Story of the Soul) Hannah can understand, remember and eagerly engage in a discussion about Saint Therese's early childhood.

As a teacher, we should help students expand the intellectual places that they can function with some help. By spending more time on these "outer reaches" of knowledge, students learn the most. The most valuable relationship between teacher and student is one of "collaboration' not dictation.

Here is a long quote from a Educational Theory Website:

"In Vygotskian perspective, the ideal role of the teacher is that of providing scaffolding (collaborative dialogue) to assist students on tasks within their zones of proximal development."[42] During 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. [43]

Vygotsky recommended a social context wherein a more competent learner would be paired with a less competent one, so that the former can elevate the latter's competence. This social context promotes sustained achievement and cognitive growth for less competent students."[44] Accordingly, students need to work together to construct their learning, teach each other so to speak, in a socio-cultural environment. In-class opportunities for collaboration on difficult problem-solving tasks will offer support to students who are struggling with the material. By interacting with more capable students who continue to mediate transactions between the struggling students and the content, all students will benefit.[45]

The implications of Vygotsky's theories and observations for educators are several and significant. In Vygotsky's view, the teacher has the collaborative "task of guiding and directing the child's activity."[46] Children can then solve novel problems "on the basis of a model he [sic] has been shown in class."[47] In other words, children learn by solving problems with the help of the teacher, who models processes for them and his or her peers, 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."[48] It is important to note that the teacher does not control the class with rule and structure; rather, the teacher collaborates with the students and provides support and direction.[49]

Assignments and activities that can be accurately completed by a student without assistance, indicate that the student has previously mastered the necessary prior knowledge. In the majority of classrooms this would be the conclusion of a unit; however, this is Vygotsky's entry point. However, as previously mentioned, the teacher must carefully group the student that "can potentially develop in collaboration with a more capable person."[50]

In our research, we found limited references to Vygotsky's specific views on curriculum content. One exception involves the teaching of writing to preschoolers. According to Garton and Pratt, Vygotsky argued for shifting the teaching of writing to preschool. They explain that Vygotsky differentiated between two forms of speech: spoken and written. Vygotsky, as cited by Garton and Pratt, asserts that a child develops an understanding that spoken speech can be symbolized in writing by progressing from "drawing things to drawing speech."[51] Vygotsky suggested then that the preschool curriculum should be designed so that it was organized to "ease child's transition from drawing things to drawing speech."[52]

Learning to master tools and technologies should also be included in the curriculum. "Students should be taught how to use tools such as the computer, resource books, and graphs in order to better utilize these tools in the future.[53] In this way, students will benefit as these tools and technologies influence the individual's thinking (along with the development of language).[54]

In sum, Vygotsky's findings suggest that the curriculum should generally challenge and stretch learner's competence.[55] The curriculum should provide many opportunities to apply previous skills, knowledge and experiences, with "authentic activities connected to real-life environment."[56] "Since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks."[57]