5.3 Teaching and learning
Vygotsky proposed that through contact with other, more able people children appropriate new ways of thinking and doing. Indeed Vygotsky saw learning as best supported when there is a degree of inequality in skills and understanding between two people. People of different abilities working together can create what Vygotsky termed a zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the difference between what a child can do unaided, and what the same child can do with the help of more able others.
[The zone of proximal development] is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86, our emphases)
The support provided by a more able partner allows the less able to tackle a new task, which in turn encourages development into a new level of competence. The social interaction and situation that create the ZPD supports the child's cognition. The concept of scaffolding (the type of assistance offered to support learning. A key characteristic of scaffolding is that it does not simplify the task) was developed by Wood to describe the way in which adults or more able peers can support a learner to operate in the ZPD (Wood et al., 1976). The metaphor of a scaffold, which is gradually withdrawn as the learner becomes able to work with less support, stresses the significance of social support in learning and development.
Vygotsky was positive about the potential of school instruction, as he believed it ‘does not preclude development but charts new paths for it’ (Vygotsky, 1934, p. 152). He believed that formal instruction had the potential to enable children to disembed their thinking from social contexts and thereby foster metacognition: the ability to gain conscious insight into one's own thought processes. For example, perhaps the only way that someone is able to solve the first puzzle in Activity 4 is if they have been taught how to disembed the underlying principles from socially acquired reasoning. Donaldson (1978) also saw this as a key outcome of formal education.