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Looking further at Vygotsky’s ideas

November 11th, 2009 by Jo Turner-Attwell

I wrote about Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development quite a long time ago now, but recently I’ve re-read some of the feedback I received, particularly that from Stephen Downs.

In particular I think its important to look at the role of the ‘teacher’ within Vygotsky’s theory as it was one of the major flaws that a ‘teacher’ was necessary for the process to take place and it seemed to disregard ‘individual’ learning which is also an important process.

Now where my argument with this arises is what is meant by a teacher? Does a teacher necessarily need to be a physical person or can a book or internet sources be also counted as a form of ‘teacher’, particularly with the rise of things like internet courses. I mean when you look at things technically, when one is learning ‘individually’ from books or internet, yes the person is carrying out the learning themselves but they still have assistance from another person in the person who has recorded or discovered these things. In essence they are still learning from others and then further it into their own ideas and opinions from there, as in Vygotsky’s theory of Zone of Proximal Development. In that sense the Zone of Proximal Development changes in that it does not need to be led by one teacher but in fact students have the ability to channel their own ZPD in the direction they so choose by drawing upon resources. This is particularly important now that social networking and internet are so easy to use, students are able to reach the top of their ZPD using such resources.

An example of this is maybe the way computers or new technology progresses, the first computer looked incredibly different to laptops today and change is made through studying current systems and building on ideas and then introducing new ones. The further thoughts and ideas progress the further the room for us to learn and reflect to build upon that learning.

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4 Responses to “Looking further at Vygotsky’s ideas”

  1. In activity theory which is strongly based on Vygotsky’s thoughts, learning is seen as a social issue. I have read books and articles concerning activity theory quite a lot recently, and I have understood this ‘social’ doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has to interact with others (talking with them, sending messages etc.) or for example study in a group to ‘learn socially’ (even though I have noticed that usually it is predicted this way). When someone reads a book or web pages, listens to a lecture, he/she is involved in a social process, since what has been produced earlier has always the social aspect within it – it contains the whole culture where it is produced in.

    So, I would assume that ZPD doesn’t have to be led by a teacher, it can be also achieved by the learner him/herself (when reading, for example, texts produced by others). I remember reading from somewhere about an idea that when a learner is in state of flow (Csíkszentmihályi) and learning is easy, he/she might also be experiencing learning in the ZPD.

  2. jen hughes says:

    Hi Jo
    Vygotsky defined those who are scaffold learners as the “More Knowledgeable Other.” The MKO, according to Vig, is anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher or an older adult. However, this is not always the case. Other possibilities for the MKO could be a peer, sibling, a younger person, or even a text, the internet, a community or whatever. The key to MKO (according to V) is that ‘they’ must have more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does. Not sure I agree with him on this. In fact, come to think of it, I most definitely disagree.

    I guess I am less interested in specific ideas of Vigotsky, such as ZPD, and more interested in how all his educational theories link together – which I find a bit problematic. That is, each bit on its own is plausible but the coherence of the whole is dodgy. It works only if you accept all his assumptions (and there are a lot!) so it all becomes a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. If this, this, this and several hundred more this-es, then this. (In fact, if you look closely there are a several contradictions between his Theory of Learning, Theory of Value, Theory of Human Nature, Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Transmission, Theory of Opportunity, Theory of Society, Theory of Consensus etc)

    (e.g All his theory of Value stuff is predicated on the idea of each child as an individual who learns distinctively but fudged together in his Theory of Human Nature with the Marxist idea of man as a collectivity, the product of a set of social relations determined by class, culture and time rather than being inherent in each single individual.)

    My biggest problem with his work is that he seems to totally discount the biological so….

    “…specific functions are not given to a person at birth but are only provided as cultural and social patterns.”


    From this (eventually) he argues that learning processes lead to (mental and physical) development i.e learning precedes development. This is diametrically opposed to Piaget who figured it was the other way around – that learning results from both mental and physical maturation plus experience. That is, development precedes learning.

    After a lifetime of working with kids, I’d settle for Piaget (except when he is arguing with Chomsky about thought preceding language or vice versa in which case I’d side with Chomsky who more or less sided with Vigotsky on the language issue!)

    Am interested in why you are so interested in Vigotsky? ; )

  3. Jen Hughes says:


    Jo – I seem to remember there is a guy called Sergei Rubinstein who was a critic of Big Lev who agreed with you about the need (or not) for teaching / mediation in the learning process. Might be worth checking him out!!


  1. “students have the ability to channel their own ZPD in the direction they so choose by drawing upon resources”

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