While marking the latest installments of our adventure stories this morning, I find Vygotsky comes to mind. Unusually, this is not due to my flighty mind wandering off, but because Vygotsky leaps out at me from every page. Let me explain.
Lev Vygotsky was a psychologist in the 19th century who spent much of his career devoted to understanding cognitive development. His main preoccupation was the social and cultural aspects of learning. For him, learning was as much about what went on in the space around a child as it was about what went on in their little heads. One concept he developed was the idea of a cognitive domain around the child, the field of potential if you like, where learning takes place. He called this the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
Hopefully, it is within this zone that we teachers operate everyday. Intuitively, teachers know pretty quickly if they’re operated outside the zone. It might begin with blank faces staring back at you, twitching and fiddling beginning, the rising bustle of disengagement or worse (poor behaviour is often because the child is mentally disengaged). In essence, there is a specific space where a teacher can be effective, and a larger, empty space beyond that where they will not. This is because the ZPD refers to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with direction and support from their teacher. Put simply, it is where learning takes place. Outside this area, there’s simply being present in the classroom giving out information and instruction, which is not the same as the children learning.
So, I used this space to model to the children examples of adventure writing that were just beyond what they would manage on their own. I did this through reading lots of quality adventure stories and writing short demonstration pieces myself – always that much better than they would do, but importantly, not outside what they could potentially achieve, or outside the ZPD. And this is where a teacher’s understanding about learning, and specifcally about their chidlren’s learning, is vital. (This is where Gove’s plan to drag so called ‘experts’ off the street to teach will fall down, as in my last rant about the man.)
Thanks to Vygotsky, I know what good modelling and demonstration must be like and where these teaching tools can take the children, but importantly why these tools facilitate learning in the way that they do. When I read through my children’s stories, I see how they have been stretched within the zone; they have taken what I showed them and achieved more than they thought they could, more than they would without me tapping into their potential. So, hats off to Vygotsky I say. The theory behind the practice holds true, and even more so because I understand how this is so.