Parents and toddlers: Teaching and learning at home
Parents and toddlers: Teaching and learning at home

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Parents and toddlers: Teaching and learning at home

2.3 Use of instructions and diagrams

If you now compare Video 1 with Video 2 it is apparent that in Video 2 both Owen and his mother, Megan, are helping Joe learn an important lesson of a very different kind (without consciously attempting to do so). They are implicitly instructing Joe that diagrams have purpose and meaning in the context of building Lego models.

In Video 1 Megan does not draw his attention to the instruction diagram at all, although she herself glances at it from time to time. At the end of the video, when Joe asks ‘What we making?’, she refers him to a picture on the box. In Video 2, by contrast, the instructions occupy the centre of the table and both Owen and Megan refer to them constantly. Joe also begins to study the diagram. Look at the following exchange between the two boys. The following sequence takes place:

  • Joe looks at the instructions.

  • Joe says, ‘And then there's a engine.’

  • Owen says, ‘Not yet, not yet Joe … Joe we don't need it yet’, and carries on making the model.

  • Owen looks at the instructions.

  • Owen says, ‘Joe, can you give Owen the engine please?’

Joe was right – Owen needed the ‘engine’ next.

There are a number of ways in which you could interpret this exchange – watch the video and study it for yourself. Is it coincidence, or is Joe using the instruction diagram to suggest to Owen what to do next?

Joe may simply have been imitating the way Owen and his mother use the diagram; nevertheless, he has understood that it has meaning and purpose in this particular context. We draw attention to the diagram because it illustrates another feature of the socio-cultural approach – the emphasis given to the way cultural tools enhance children's learning. Knowing how to interpret, or ‘read’, diagramatic instructions is a vital skill in a technological society, one which Joe is being introduced to at the age of four. A Vygotskian would say that he is beginning to learn how to use a particular cultural (and symbolic) tool, and that in this particular context Joe is signalling his elementary understanding of how to use diagrams. In Vygotsky's terms his competence in using diagrams and completing Lego puzzles without support can be described in terms of ZPD.

The next reading provides a synopsis of the concept of ZPD.

Reading 2

Read the extract from Chapter 2 of Dialogue and the Development of Children's Thinking by Mercer and Littleton (2007).

Please click on the link below to view synopsis (PDF, 3 pages, 0.08 MB)

Synopsis [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

The development of children's thinking is characterised by Tharp and Gallimore as one of guided reinvention. Using the example of language acquisition, they point out that children are typically not taught in any formal sense to use and understand their first language: it is not a matter of cultural transmission by direct instruction. But equally clearly children do not invent language use for themselves, or develop it spontaneously. They develop it in and through interactions (more or less structured as the case may be) with those around them. Tharp and Gallimore offer guided reinvention as a general model for cognitive development. Using the concept of scaffolding they argue that guided reinvention and individual self-supported competence in any field may come about only after successful performance has been established by assisted learning in the child's ZPD. The adult's role as teacher is to guide and assist the learner's performance through successive stages of the ZPD.

Tharp and Gallimore characterise the ZPD not as a single growing point for an individual but as a multitude of growing edges which relate to all areas of developing competence. Growing edges are not simply a quality of the child; they are an expression of his or her various activities and social relationships. For example, discovering and practising how diagrams are used in the company of his mother and brother is just one of Joe's growing edges. When you study the final episode of ‘Joe's day’ you will begin to appreciate just how many of these growing edges he experiences during his interactions with members of his family in any one day.

The video episodes from Joe's day also illustrate an issue which Tharp and Gallimore touch upon when they talk about ontogenesis and microgenesis (Learning Relationship in the Classroom, p. 102). We could see the whole history of development in the child (ontogenesis) as a single, age-related process, going from Tharp and Gallimore's ‘stage 1’ (where assistance is provided by more capable others) through ‘stage 2’ (where assistance is provided by the self) to eventual ‘internalisation’ in ‘stage 3’. In some ways this seems to fit the facts: infants and younger children are heavily dependent on others for help; around four to six years of age they engage in a great deal of ‘talking to themselves’ out loud, which diminishes as they become more self-sufficient learners during the school years. This would be to take Vygotsky's story at the ontogenetic level, relating it to development across the lifespan.

Equally though, at the ‘microgenetic’ level we could take the view that these three stages apply to learning at whatever age it occurs. For example, when we encounter a new learning situation as adults our learning experiences can be described in the same terms. Looked at from this point of view, age may in fact make rather little difference to the process and what is at issue may be the level of one's expertise in relation to the particular problem. The difference between adults and children lies with the fact that adults have access to more sophisticated tools and strategies to aid them through the learning process.

When we looked at Joe's attempts to build the Lego model we were attempting to establish, at a microgenetic level, various teaching and learning processes taking place in relation to a particular problem. Tharp and Gallimore seem to suggest that while there is an overall ontogenetic development which follows the course they outline in their description of the four stages of the ZPD, this outline will apply equally well to microgenetic learning processes at any point in the lifespan (or indeed at any point in a child's day). So, for a simple skill Joe may be at stage 4, but for a more complex skill he will be at stage 1.

Activity 1

Consider the plausibility of Tharp and Gallimore's suggestion in relation to your own experience. Reflect on some of your adult learning experiences, particularly any that involve new skills, such as learning to drive a car or using a computer. How well does an account in terms of a ZPD, or more specifically in terms of Tharp and Gallimore's stages, fit with your recollection of your learning experience?

At the end of their article Tharp and Gallimore draw a contrast between two types of interaction: parents with children in the home, and teachers with children in the school. This alerts us to the very different circumstances in which teaching and learning are carried out. Schools are institutions specifically contrived to achieve learning, but on the face of it some features of the classroom setting seem ill-suited to the kind of teaching and learning processes we have been looking at with younger children. What do we know of the similarities and differences between these two settings, and to what extent can the same theoretical approach deal with both? These are two of the issues addressed in the next reading.

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