Learning happens. It happens so often, in fact, that we regularly fail to call it ‘learning’, except in the narrow field of ‘schooling’. Theories of learning aim to explain the process of how we learn; in so far as they succeed, they can be used to guide teachers towards better practice. While no one learning theory has been shown to be universal, or flawless, Constructivism, specifically the ‘Social Constructivism’ of Vygotsky (Vygotsky & Cole, 1978), provides useful insight into this learning process. His theory suggests that learning occurs through collaboration with ‘More Knowledgeable Others’ (MKOs), within a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. This view of learning has both challenging and exciting implications for effective praxis; on this view, teachers must work towards providing: engaging, immersive and expressive teaching; a safe, supportive, and diverse social environment that includes family and community connections; holistic learning tasks, set in a ‘real world’ contexts; and predominantly dynamic, formative assessment.
Vygotsky is a Social Constructivist; while accepting Piaget’s claim that learners were actively constructing their knowledge (McInerney & McInerney, 2009, p. 53), Vygotsky did not accept Piaget’s noting of the learner as a solo explorer, constructing their knowledge through self discovery (McInerney & McInerney, 2009, p. 53). Vygotsky saw that whilst learning takes place within the mind, and skills are often practiced and mastered alone, learners were never truly ‘solo explorers’; their learning is never completely ‘individual’, but is socially mediated by ‘MKOs’, and through the use of various physical and cognitive tools, e.g. books/reading (language), equipment, rules, and strategy (Salomon & Perkins, 1998, p. 2). This ‘mediation’ begins from our earliest experiences, and continues indefinitely.
The learning process follows the same basic pattern, regardless of the age of the learner. Where a learner comes across a problem that they cannot solve alone, a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) is generated (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, as cited in Hausfather, 1996). The ZPD is a theoretical construct to highlight the ‘zone’ between the knowledge and skills that a learner has already developed, and can use without assistance (the ‘Actual Development Level’), and the things the learner cannot do even with support (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996). This ‘zone’ helps to identify current knowledge, the knowledge and skills that are as yet immature, but in potentia, and skills and knowledge that the learner is not yet ready for; it is here that there are opportunities for learning and development.
Each learner, in every domain, has a ‘ZPD (Hausfather, 1996; Vygotsky, 1997; Vygotsky & Cole, 1978). On this view, the learner is a ‘cognitive apprentice’ that is supported by ‘tools’, such as books and computers, and ‘mediators’, such as MKOs, to co-construct new knowledge, or to ‘bridge’ the gap between old knowledge used in a new situation. In Vygotsky’s learning theory, it was the role of an MKO to support the ‘cognitive apprentice’ in a learning task through their ‘ZPD’ (Vygotsky, 1997; Vygotsky & Cole, 1978); building their capacity by setting tasks that were neither too easy, or too challenging. Depending on the level of development of particular skills within the ZPD, MKOs’ support may be graduated through a series of ‘stages’, including modelling, scaffolding, fading, and coaching (Collins, 1991).
The collaborative nature of meaning-making makes learning bi-directional; despite the apparent ‘transmission’ of knowledge from the MKO to a learner, the knowledge co-created does not merely affect the learner, but also the MKO, and others. By teaching, the MKO is also learning; sometimes gaining new ‘content’ knowledge, from the learner’s experience, at other times, the learning is a deeper understanding of the subject, and knowledge of how to teach. Meaning is neither ‘transmitted’, nor ‘independent’, neither ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’; instead, it is a little of both. The learner is both shaped by, and shapes, the environment around them (Bodrova, 1997, p. 16).
Vygotsky’s theory has some challenging, but exciting implications for my teaching. The first is that, particularly in my LOTE classroom, I need to be engaging, immersive, and expressive, because Vygotsky’s theory suggests that
“…children observe conversation and […] it is the unity of perception, speech and action which leads them to make sense of situations… Children do not simply react to the words that are used but interpret the context, facial expression, and body language to understand meaning.” (Pound, 2012, p. 39)
While teaching and learning a second language, context, expression, and body language are key strategies to ‘decoding’ unfamiliar vocabulary and grammatical structures. Similarly, in my SOSE classes, it will be important to recognise the context, expression and body language of my learners who speak the same language; we sometimes need to interpret their terminology due to unfamiliar subgroup differences. This will require attending and questioning skills.
The second key implication for my teaching is that the learning environment must be a safe, supportive place, which encourages diversity and collaboration with family and community. Vygotsky’s emphasis on the social nature of learning, and the contexts in which it happens, promotes both interactive, collaborative activities at school, and strong relationship building with family and community outside of it. Firstly, encouraging, and developing the skills for group work demand the use of multiliteracies (including social/emotional literacy) and metacognition. I will have to model these multiliteracies, and, through attention to my feedback and teaching styles, must develop a space where learners feel safe and supported, by both myself, and their peers. Secondly, Vygotsky’s theory demands attention on partnerships with families and communities; learning and development are mediated by a variety of social actors, and without collaboration with, and reinforcement from, family connections, learning will not occur at the optimum level.
Similarly, while diversity in our classrooms can present challenges, it can also provide benefits in a Vygotskian framework. Vygotsky suggests that different cultures develop different mental tools and strategies (Davidson & Davidson, 1994; Vygotsky, 1997). This provides additional reasons to support multicultural awareness and cross-cultural support networks. By utilising the diversity in the classroom, additional opportunities for peer- and teacher support would be created, and strategies and ‘tools’ could be shared cross-culturally; this is seen when we consider the ‘8 Ways of Learning’ (Bangamalanha Centre via the Traditional Owners of Western New South Wales, 2011) that has been promoted to assist with Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum. Sharing cognitive and metacognitive strategies opens these resources to all, and allows them further opportunity to internalise a range of strategies that will assist them in achieving their educational goals (Kozulin, 2003, p. 16). It also promotes recognition of the value of diversity, and respect for all.
The third key implication for my teaching is that tasks should be holistic, and based in the ‘real world’. When requiring a product of learning, whether in social sciences or in the L2, learning and assessment tasks should be holistic. This is due to the contextual nature of learning; abstraction from one field to another is not automatic. Rather than demanding demonstration of individual skill or memory of an isolated fact, teachers need to look at them in a holistic way, to embed the tasks in as ‘real-world’ a context as possible. This also connects to the activation of the students’ prior learning/knowledge, in that the use of skills and facts in new ways supports the abstraction of this learning into new areas.
Vygotsky’s emphasis on context was to bridge the gap between learners’ real world experience, and the learning done in school. As their knowledge is ‘deconstructed’ in the classroom, and new knowledge co-constructed, students develop their ability to analyse, formalise and abstract their experience to novel situations (Smagorinsky, 2013). This will be important in both LOTE and SOSE. In LOTE, there is little point in teaching young adolescents the vocabulary and constructs for discussions about advanced science, or political theory; teaching topics should be predominantly within the students’ range of experience, relevant and relatable to their lives. It is also important to avoid breaking tasks down into components; learners need to be focused on the ‘whole’ (McInerney & McInerney, 2009, p. 55). Similarly, in the study of SOSE, particularly history, it is important to bring students experiences of the world now, to see their world reflected in the world of the past. Through their experiences, they will relate, and investigate differences between then and now; they will also have the opportunity to reflect on where we can go from here, and the impact they can have in affecting the world around them. Everything they experience in their world today must be used to provide connections between their understandings, and the abstracted historical knowledge.
The other aspect of this worth mentioning relates to the idea that cultural tools do not merely shape us, but we use these tools to change our environment (Salomon & Perkins, 1998). As a LOTE teacher, I want to develop learners who find their own ‘space’ between two cultures, with due consideration of ‘correct’ language in the classroom, but also with the confidence to experiment with the modes and registers of their counterparts in the target culture. This implies a careful balance between requiring ‘school’ language, and allowing students to make the L2 ‘their own’, in conjunction with other speakers in the community.
The fourth key implication of Vygotsky’s theory for my teaching is that it implies a much more nuanced view of assessment; not only do we require knowledge of what a student can do now, but we need to know where that student is going, and what they need assistance with to get there. Tasks must be pitched at the correct level, and the appropriate level of support needs to be given. I will need to gain knowledge of my students’ capabilities very quickly, and, particularly in LOTE, be capable of providing multi-levelled tasks. Formal assessment needs to be dynamic, rather than static, and focus on the formative elements of assessment, rather than all attention on the summative elements. In all my classes, formative assessment will be paramount; regular feedback will be given to students both formally and informally. Assessment, particularly in my LOTE classes, will by as ‘dynamic’ as I can make it, with individual/paired activities that are assessed and progression that is plotted over time. This will assist me as the teacher, in knowing my students; It will assist in determining what, when, and how much assistance to provide to individuals and the class as a whole. Summative assessment is necessary, but will eventually only demonstrate what I already know about my students, and what they already know about themselves.
For Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1997), learning was not limited to formal education; it began almost immediately after birth, and didn’t really stop until – one assumes – death. While His Social Constructivist theory, like all learning theories, has flaws, it does provide a useful conception of learning that can support praxis. The implications for teaching are at once challenging and exciting; they are also admittedly complex in practice, noting the constraints in classrooms. This difficulty, however, should not be cause for discarding the theory; striving for greater incorporation of social constructivist ideas is worthwhile for both ‘learning teaching’, and ‘teaching learning’.
Bangamalanha Centre via the Traditional Owners of Western New South Wales. (2011). 8 [Aboriginal] Ways of Learning. from http://8ways.wikispaces.com/
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Davidson, John, & Davidson, Frances. (1994). Vygotsky’s Developmental Theory: An Introduction: Davidson Films, Inc.
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John-Steiner, Vera, & Mahn, Holbrook. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskian framework. Educational psychologist, 31(3-4), 191-206.
Kozulin, A. (2003). Psychological Tools and Mediated Learning. In A. Kozulin, B. Gindis, V. S. Ageyev & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context. Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives (pp. 15 – 38). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McInerney, D.M., & McInerney, V. (2009). Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning: Pearson Education Australia.
Pound, Linda. (2012). How Children Learn : From Montessori to Vygosky – Educational Theories and Approaches Made Easy Retrieved from http://murdoch.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=977676
Salomon, Gavriel, & Perkins, David N. (1998). Chapter 1: Individual and Social Aspects of Learning. Review of Research in Education, 23(1), 1-24. doi: 10.3102/0091732×023001001
Smagorinsky, Peter. (2013). What Does Vygotsky Provide for the 21st Century Language Arts Teacher? Language Arts, 90(3), 192 – 204.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1997). Interaction Between Learning and Development. In M. Gauvain & M. Cole (Eds.), Readings on the Development of Children (2nd ed.). New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.
Vygotsky, L.S., & Cole, M. (1978). MIND IN SOCIETY: Harvard University Press.
 Which, on this theory, is intimately connected with development – learning is not the same as development, but learning can result in development (Hausfather, 1996).
 Correct citation unknown; contact with the Bangamalanha Centre was attempted, but failed. Suggested citation was extrapolated from the wiki protocol page.