Teacher Question of the Week

Q: What is the significance of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, ZPD, and how does it relate to scaffolding?

A: Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who contributed significantly to education by explaining the concept of mediation and the zone of proximal development, which relates directly to scaffolding, part of cognitive apprenticeship. His work incorporates that of Piaget, and Feuerstein's work today on cognitive modifiability is based largely on Vygotsky's contributions. (This link will take you to more resources on Vygotsky.)

Teaching in the ZPD
How do the ideas of mediation and the ZPD (zone of promimal development) relate to teaching adults? Mediation might be considered as individualized instruction given by the professor, tutor, or mentor. It is a bit like the Socratic method in that the mediator asks a question to lead the student to discover or derive the answer using his or her thinking abilities. The inquiry process is one that the student internalizes, becoming more and more independent in learning as he or she applies the same method when working alone or with peers on assignments.

The lecture based class can present questioning in a broad sense that stimulates and inspires students, demonstrates "thinking aloud", and uses visuals to support speech, while the individual assignments might be designed with varying levels and abilities in mind. Scaffolding is one way to attempt to reach all levels (see below). A few other methods for including all students in the lecture might be use partners in class to discuss a question raised or to share notes, or engage students in small group activities that support the lecture topic.
Examples to Illustrate the Concept of ZPD
An example of an application of ZPD is seen in the design of many of the informal reading inventories given by reading specialists. The students read lists of words at different levels, from easy to too difficult, and also read passages and answer comprehension questions that begin at an accessible level and progress to very difficult. The results specify an independent, an instructional and a frustration level for the student in decoding (reading words) and comprehension.

The instructional range involves that zone in which the student is really learning. The ZPD is a zone in which enough challenge is provided for the upper level for the student, but the lesson is not overly frustrating. So the high pole of the ZPD is the range in which the student is receptive to challenging levels of knowledge and skills, higher than those demonstrated as mastered. Receptivity precedes expression.

Scaffolding may include any of the following: giving students hints, providing information to guide them, such as prompts written on index cards, demonstrating the task at hand and exemplifying the type of thinking required for mastery by "talking aloud" during lecture, and beginning practice with easier material. Once the student has learned the material and skills, s/he has reached independent mastery, and it is appropriate to move on to higher levels. If the student is still having difficulties, an error analysis to determine the cause is appropriate.

How does one engage students at the highest levels while providing support for undeveloped or deficient skills? This is the heart of teaching students with learning differences. Because students with ld have average to above average intelligence, it is important to appeal to their higher level reasoning or insights, while allowing scaffolding or compensation for the problem areas involving perceptual processing.

Uneven abilities will occur in all classes, not only between students but within students; such variation is just more exaggerated for students with extreme cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Gardner's model of Multiple Intelligences explains this fact of different abilities well.

Perhaps a
n example of applying these ideas would be sharing enthusiasm for the lecture topic in your class during lecture, explaining the concepts and ideas verbally, using a diagram to illustrate the ideas, plus providing a list of key vocabulary terms that support the theory. The sharing of ideas fulfills the students' need to reach ahead for motivation and inspiration, and the diagramming and vocabulary provide support for those who may have language processing difficulties.

Another way to provide for different intra-abilities is to allow students time to formulate questions and answers in class discussions. Remember, a student may have good receptive language and is able to understand you quite well, but it is possible for the same individual to have expressive language timing delays, which means it will take him or her more time than peers to organize language prior to responding. Creating a trusting climate helps encourage students to participate verbally.

Some teachers provide reading assignments at varying levels of readability. This would take more time to identify, but perhaps providing choice among several articles for one assignment may be the easiest way to do this.
In Summary...
A practical way to apply ZPD is to try to do the following:
1. Provide for tutors in your class to facilitate individualized instruction whenever possible.
2. Teach using multi-sensory methods, so those with a variety of strengths and weaknesses receive the important information through either a verbal or a visual mode.
3. When thinking through your lesson, ask yourself:
How will I engage students at the upper levels enthusiastically without overwhelming them?
What is the instructional zone of my class?
Where might difficulties occur, and how could I provide support?

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