Activity 3

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Here is Vygotsky's grandly-named ‘general genetic law of cultural development':

"Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals" (Vygotsky 1978: 57)

This law encapsulates Vygotsky's view that the mind is socially formed and that children internalise new forms of thinking through "actual relations between human individuals", for example, through joint activity with parents or teachers or older siblings.

REFLECT: To what extent do you think that the mind is socially formed? Do you think that the mind is entirely social in constitution or might there be important ‘innate' factors involved in cognitive development?

Vygotsky explains how children internalise collective, shared experience through his famous concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (the ZPD). ‘Proximal' means ‘next to'. Some Vygotskian scholars believe that this Russian phrase should have been translated as the 'Zone of Potential Development'.

REFLECT: Decide which word, ‘proximal' or ‘potential', you think is better, in the light of your reading in this activity.

What Vygotsky is suggesting through this concept of the ZPD is that children, with the assistance of parents, teachers or more skilled peers, learn through participating in activities which are slightly beyond their competence. This is their zone of proximal or potential development

READ: Read what Vygotsky says about the ZPD in the extract from Mind and Society. reproduced on pages 51 to 58 of Language, Literacy and Learning in Educational Practice edited by Stierer, B. and Maybin, J.

On page 53 of this reading, Vygotsky defines the ZPD as

‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the higher level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers'  

Note that the word 'potential' is used in this translation.

What Vygotsky is identifying in this definition is the difference between aided and unsupported performance. Two children might have the same level of mental development at a particular moment but different levels of potential when guided by adult support. This a dynamic view of intelligence which you might like to compare with the theories of intelligence which were presented in Unit 2.

READ: Read Chapter 2 of Learning Through Enquiry by Margaret Roberts.

WRITE: Write an account of a lesson which you have taught recently and discuss the extent to which different children were operating in the zone of proximal development. Use Vygotskian terminology to support your analysis. How helpful do you think that the ZPD is as a conceptual tool for teachers?

(Allow 30 minutes)