Vygotsky was Right

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who lived from 1896-1934. He was relatively unknown to educators until the 1960’s and 1970’s when his work was rediscovered and interpreted. (Many believe the difficulty with reading Vygotsky’s work arose from the little editing he did during his end-of-life brain dump during which he recorded as many of his ideas as possible. He died at 38 of tuberculoses. Further, much of his writing was originally done in Russian, which made it unavailable to many scholars until it was translated.)

Vygotsky is now well-known for several ideas, but his zone of proximal development (ZPD) is perhaps the one idea that is most familiar to educators. In the ZPD, there are two ideas about human learning that are absolutely essential for educators to understand and for educators to apply to their curriculum and instruction. 

In the ZPD, we also see a simple typology of activities that can be assigned to students: those that are too simple, those that are too complex, and those that are just right. The activities in the “just right” category are sufficiently challenging that they require effort on the part of the learner, and once accomplished the learner senses the improved performance. Vygotsky suggests that accomplishing tasks within the ZPD requires the support of others. Tasks that fall below the ZPD are too simple given the learner’s skill level, and will be accomplished with ease, and with the learner having a sense of boredom. Tasks that are above the learners ZPD will be beyond the capabilities of the learner and will quickly lead to frustration. Vygotsky reasons that only tasks within the ZPD will be educative in the sense that students perceive their skills are improving and the learners are capable of successfully completing more complex tasks over time.

I was first introduced to ZPD by a trusted mentor while a graduate student. In the years between my introduction to Vygotsky and my stroke, I had read several accounts of ZPD, taught it to scores of graduate students, and tried my best to align my classroom with the vision of taking students from where they are to where they are going. I thought I understood ZPD, and then I had a stroke and had to learn to walk again.

Two days after I suffered my stroke, I had effectively forgotten how to walk. Because I had walked to and from work on the day before my stroke–and a few days earlier I had taken my usual five mile path up and down the hills near my house–it is reasonable to conclude that my muscles were still sufficiently strong to walk, but I had no idea how to control my muscles.

In the terms of Vygotsky’s ZPD, every aspect of walking was beyond my zone of proximal development. Moving the two feet from my hospital bed to the chair next to it was a minute-long process. My balance depended on my leaning heavily on the chair and the people helping me and my feet were dragged along the floor with great effort and much pain.

A physical therapist arrived and she was rather optimistic that I would fully recover my ability to walk. My first steps across the room were quite labored and accomplished only with the support of a walker and the therapist keeping a firm hold on a belt secured around my waist. Those first steps were also a cognitive challenge as well as a physical challenge.

Walking is a complex process of controlled falling. With each step, a walker’s center of gravity is adjusted forward beyond the base formed by the feet, and the walker’s body begins to fall forward. The fall is interrupted by a foot moving forward, and that it repeated with precise timing with each step. This explains why a walker falls when tripped. Walking is more complicated, however. Left to the effects of gravity, a walker’s toes fall when the foot is moved forward. The result is that unless the toes are lifted as the foot is moved forward, the toes drag on the ground and impede the walking. The lower leg must be kicked forward and Also, smooth movement of the foot along the ground requires the heel to land first. Further, smooth walking requires the walker to stand tall, with shoulders held slightly back, and the head upright and still; the image of someone learning to walk with composure by balancing a book on her head (sorry for the stereotype) is accurate.

Most of the complexity contained in the preceding paragraph is learned by and thus controlled by parts of the brain that are not consciously controlled by the walker. Those parts of my brain were damaged by my stroke, so my natural gait that was coordinated by my parts of my cerebellum that operated smoothly without the conscious input of my cerebrum was gone. Walking became a cognitive challenge as I was forced to reteach my brain to walk.

As I took the first awkward and painful steps across the room, I realized two things: First, my body was still intact. My muscles worked and I knew that I could walk. Second, I was going to have to reteach my body to walk. A third realization quickly came to my mind: my ZPD for walking had been radically redefined.

Before my stroke, I some walking skills were beyond my skill level– in retrospect, I would include tight rope walking and most rock climbing as types of walking beyond my ZPD. The walking necessary for normal life– strolls on the beach, walking at a heartbeat-increasing pace up hills–we things I could accomplish without thought. I was content with those skills, so had little interest in adding tight rope walking to my skills. 

Understanding ZPD is important for two reasons. First, if it does accurately describe the progress of an individual who learns any complex skills. Second, the ZPD is defined for each individual. As a result, a well-planned lesson that follows from where the previous lesson left off, may be inappropriate for a large part of the class. Third, we can differentiate exercises from authenticity in teaching. 

On Exercises

Education appears to be in a constant struggle to decide if skills or authenticity is more important. Although the details of the conflict may be lost to outside observers, and even to many who work in education, the manifestations of the struggles are familiar with anyone who has paid attention to a school community for longer than about five years. It takes about this long for a school to first adopt a curriculum and then to abandon it for another. I am most familiar with this in mathematics, as the debate swings between using “skills-based curriculum” that focus on ensuring students know “their math facts” and can apply algorithms with precision and “problem-based curriculum” that focus on applying mathematics to complex situations. Similar debates occupy the attention of teachers of reading (phonics versus whole language) and writing (grammar-based or creative).

One reason these debates continue without resolution (or ore accurately) the debate periodically shifts is that each can be justified with some evidence as it works for some students. Further, there are settings in which improvements is performance will be associated with a curriculum change, but that are nor caused by the change.

If we imagine a school in which the students have performed poorly on standardized test in mathematics (I will assume the test data is used as it should– and is used to draw conclusions about large groups of students rather than for individual students). We would expect that the school leaders will identify that poor performance and take steps to improve performance. We might expect those school leaders to identify a new math curriculum, and implement it. Furhter, we would expect that implementation would be accompanied by a focus of the community on improving math scores, with additional homework, additional training for teachers, and additional support from leaders for all mathematics work.

If we image there is a measurable improvement in the students’ performance in students’ performance, then the improvements can be attributed to the new curriculum. A thoughtful educator, however, would recognize that the improvements could just as reasonably be attributed to any of the

On Authenticity

In the previous section, I described the reasons that I perceived exercises to be important as the result of what I learned while recovering from my stroke. In this section, I give reasons that authenticity is important. Before beginning, it should be noted that indeed this section contradicts the previous section. In the previous section, exercises–activities isolated from any meaningful application– are essential for learning. In this section, I argue that authentic activities– those that are embedded in and deeply dependent on meaningful application– are also essential for education. Before beginning, as well, I will also quantify the difference between exercises and authenticity. Authentic activities are about twice as important as exercises; so an educator planning his or her curriculum should plan one or two days per week for exercises and three or four days per week for authentic activities.

The question does arise, of course, “just what constitutes an authentic activity?” Authentic tasks in learning situations has been well described, and there are a number of very recognizable characteristics of tasks that are authentic. For the purpose of this post, a short description is sufficient. Authentic learning results in students creating products over time that are recognized as valuable to those outside the classroom; further, the final products are unpredictable to the teacher when they begin.

Neither is Sufficient

WHen learning to walk again, I discovered that I could not retrain my brain without exercises. They seemed silly and when I lost patience with my therapist, he would take to walk on the grass and he would have me pay attention to what was happening with my body. I experienced the application of the exercises to the authentic activity. That changed my teaching.

Start simple. Start with skills and exercises, but don’t go more than a day or so without giving students some opportunity to experience their progress through their ZPD in the real world.