Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Brief Look at Zone of Proximal Development

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
complexity and the brain
Lev Vygotsky (1896 -1934) was a pioneer psychologist who lived in Moscow. I have great respect for his studies and found his Mind And Society an absorbing read. One of the precious ideas he brought to us is what he called the Zone Of Proximal Development. I was reminded of this recently when reading Laurie Bartel’s post, Lev Vygotsky & ZPD, where she called for elaboration or clarification of ZPD.

Vygotsky had an interest in scaffolding, particularly in relation to learner development in vocabulary and language. He was fascinated with ways of determining the state of development in the young learner. He drew the distinction between what he referred to as ‘age level of development’ and the ‘developmental process’ in relation to ‘learning capabilities’.

Closer analysis

Vygotsky’s studies in this field suggest he firmly believed there was more to potential development in the learner than just what could be judged by observing what he called the learner’s actual development level. This is what can be determined presumably through analysis over a range of tests and other related observational parameters.

His argument was that what the young learner can do with the assistance of others is a better indicator of mental development than what she can do alone. He made the unambiguous distinction between the assessable accomplishment of the learner when unaided and the observable performance of the learner when given assistance. His pithy summary is
The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state.
Much of Vygotsky’s ideas were tempered by existing theory of the time and furthered by his insightful hypotheses based on his own observations. R G Tharp and R Gallimore proposed an expansion of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development that involved further stages including the assistance that could be provided by the learner herself.

While Vygotsky spoke of developmental stages in the learner, he also posited that development is too complex to be defined by stages that disperse and become diffuse as the learner develops. As a result of this diffusion, previously identifiable stages can no longer be recognised in the learner.

Developmental Stages
Rather than ‘development’ laying down a series of identifiable zones, as shown above, learning is more a broad frontier that advances progressively. The zone of proximal development at the periphery of the actual development level has a depth according to the level of potential development.

Zone of Proximal Development
“What is in the zone of proximal development today will be the actual developmental level tomorrow”.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


V Yonkers said...

With four children, I am sure you have seen how different children develop differently. I wonder what would happen if you put Gardner's "intelligences" over the ZPD. Do children draw on their preferred strengths or abilities which results in a difference in ZPD? Would the model then be different for each person? Could we develop different developmental mile stones based on this?

I think, for example, of my son who is a "young" sophmore (2nd year) in high school. Because of his verbal and retreival skills, he does well in school (in honors courses). But then socially, I see him going through the same developmental things (relationships with others in the class, openness to new ideas, independence) much later than his classmates. I always was much slower "learner" than others in my class, partly because of my age (I was one of the youngest in my class) but more so because of my style. I tend to be very reflective, needing to see a big picture, needing time to process and analyze. I just move at a slower pace.

I think there does need to be more research into the ZPD.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

Indeed, with 6 children I have observed how they all develop differently. Of course the model would be different for each. There was never any assumption that it would be universal - neither does Vygotsky suggest this in any way.

Developmental milestones? Hmmm. Development has various different types, or at least, there are different ways of regarding development. I'm not so sure that ZPD has application other than possibly predicting potential to reach these so-called milestones - but the milestones seem fearfully academic and bound up with progress assessment.

I agree that there's more research needed. However, the evidence already available seems to confirm that:

1 provided the concept of ZPD is accepted, Vygotsky's ZPD is indeed observable in all young learners,

2 the ZPDs for all learners are different, both in extent and 'shape' simply because of the different stages of development of all in different areas of learning (I've observed this with all my children for instance and you with yours),

3 the ZPD appears to lend some assistance to educators in predicting possible future development in learners - in this way it also provides a way (according to Vygotsky) of assessing a more useful picture of the developmental level of the learner.

Vygotsky's observation that the ZPD was more of a measure of the development of the learner than any progress assessment is a fulcrum. I guess what some may look to research for is a way of quantifying (measuring in quantitative and qualitative ways) the ZPD for a learner. Vygotsky's view of this was that a ZPD is a transient thing, ever shifting, ever advancing, that left behind little trace of its retrospective size, breadth or shape.

What I tried to do with these pictures was to convey the idea that the ZPD was a mobile entity capable of being observed and charted, but that leaves no detectable shadow within the learner that permits its past form to be determined easily.

Catchya later

Newman said...

You know I always thought of the ZPD as a way to explain why, for instance, you became a better skier / tennis player / ukulele player, if you practiced or were involved with those just alittle bit better than you ... but, not too much. If in the ZPD (as I understood it), you would be challenged and engaged by measuring up and competition. If not, you would either become bored (too easy, not enough competition, and personal development)Or you would become frustrated (too hard, can keep up, not learning anything).

Is this anywhere close to the actual ideas Vygotsky?

Thanks for the post! I agree the ZPD deserves much more study. And, it has implications for all the social-ness that is going on in education and communication.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai!
Tēnā koe Newman.

Thanks for dropping by with your relevant question.

My link to work by Tharp and Gallimore takes you to a diagram that shows that their expansion of Vygotsky's original ZPD involves what you refer to here.

Vygotsky's ZPD focussed on the observable capability of the learner when given assistance from a capable other. What is clear to me (and alluded to by Vygotsky at various points in Mind and Society) is that the ZPD of older learners (teenagers say) are of a different nature. My own observations show me that older learners, especially mature adults, make use of the area you refer to.

Whether this entity and Vygotsky's ZPD are related is a matter for cojecture. My own feeling is that they are different. Recall that Vygotsky spoke of his ZPD as a (better, more useful) way of measuring developmental level in a young learner - probably quite a different idea from what you explain here.

Catchya later

Paul C said...

The ZPD reinforces the concept that teachers need to cultivate the background knowledge of students when introducing new concepts. Anticipatory activities will engage students and heighten learning. Excellent explanation of the concept.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Paul!

Thanks for this. I used the word 'scaffolding' in the post. I didn't elaborate on this term as it involves so much else. But it is extremely relevant to ZPD, as you explain in your comment.

Apparently Vygotsky was enchanted by the (early) work of Piaget. Stands to reason?

Catchya later