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Home arrow Psychology arrow Understanding Educational Psychology: A Late Vygotskian, Spinozist Approach

Coda: The Zone of Proximal Development Redux

In much of the going literature on the zone of proximal development, the notion is used in the way that it fits the ideology of teachers as actors responsible for student learning and development. The chapter-opening quotation derives from Mind in Society. The book editors reveal that they had “taken significant liberties” and that they provided “not a literal translation of Vygotsky but rather [their] edited translation,” leaving out materials and adding materials that seemed to make [Vygotsky’s] point clearer” (Vygotsky 1978: x). Here, we are not interested in engaging in the debate concerning the extent to which what can be found in Mind and Society reflects the kind of work Vygotsky was pursuing towards the end of his life. It has been pointed out that (a) the notion of the zone of proximal development was published only after Vygotsky’s death, by his students who compiled his lecture notes, and (b) Vygotsky himself attributed the notion to others (Yasnitsky and van der Veer 2016). Whatever the case, Vygotsky discusses the notion in the context of an educational problematic—i.e. performance testing—and its normative and one-sided formulation might in that regard not be surprising. It is fair to acknowledge that the notion has offered alternative ways to address a perennial problem in classroom assessment: Rather than focusing on end products, educators need to focus on educational potentials and processes. Yet it is also important to consider the notion in light of the transformative and thoroughly monist stance that Vygotsky’s legacy affords developing, but which only a few scholars have taken up to expand (cf. Newman and Holzman 1993).

We take our starting point in the late Vygotsky texts and develop them in a way that is more consistent with the dialectical materialist approach that the psychologist himself describes as his method; and we draw on the dialectical materialist reading of the Spinozist position regarding the thinking body (Il’enkov 1977). We therefore pursue revisiting the concept of the zone of proximal development to reappropriate it for inscription within a monist theory. A key to such a move is the recognition that what marks humans from other animals is the fact that they orient their behavior towards the responses of others. They do so in “joint activity in communication” and using verbal language, which transforms the human lifeworld “into an objectively real support and into material limits on a special psychological space, the tense field of joint experience of a future action externalized for one another” (Mikhailov 2001: 26). The speech field is the consciousness that the participants in dialogue make available to each other and for each other in order to move the activity ahead. This field itself not only is the product of the participants’ joint activity, but also results from the presence of human staff that enables the reproduction of life, of the {natural I cultural} world. The joint activity, achieved in part by communication, “creates a borderline situation in which the alien is identical with one’s own and one’s own exists an experienced reality of Other” (2001: 26). This has immediate implications for our consideration of the physics lesson: We can no longer look at teacher and students as external to each other caught up in communication, where a third entity external to both, language, has to mediate to bring them together (see Chap. 4). Instead, whatever might be experienced as Other actually is identical with the individual ’ s own , and whatever someone has to offer (teacher, students) constitutes the experienced reality of the respective Other (students, teacher). Whether students say something in reply to a query or say nothing are both treated as part of responses; and part of the joint work lies in figuring out whether a non-reply has its source in something related to actively attending (inattention, failure to hear, form of hearing) or to a missing capacity to reply.[1]

In the extended lesson fragment, we note the repeated invitations to look, as if the students had not been gazing at the display.[2] If there are repeated invitations to look and look again, then this is for a purpose: It exhibits that whatever there has been evidenced as seen is not what the invitation to look has invited to see. The repetitions may be glossed as the teacher’s attempt to get students to see something but that he has failed to get them to see with just one or two invitations. Instead, it is as if he was trying to find a way to get students to see for themselves what needs to be seen so that the nature of the arrows can be articulated in the way that the curriculum specified. In the process, we observe a differentiation in the ways of asking the same question. In this situation, the teacher can be thought of as conducting an inquiry to find out (and learn) that form of the question that will produce the thought-after reply. As a result, he has learned. It turns out that the teacher used some of the new ways of asking he found in this group with the next group. We also witness that the subsequent exchanges with students from other groups are shorter than the one investigated here.

In the reported event, learning has occurred as the daily praxis of teaching, manifested in an expanded repertoire for eliciting particular responses. We know that it is precisely in the course of this event that the teacher came to the realization that his students were not seeing what the software package was created for them to see. The teacher suddenly understood that particular things needed to happen so that students could see precisely that which the theory explains, and not perceive all the other things that distract them from becoming familiar with the relevant physics discourse to be learned. Through this {teaching I learning} event, thus, the students have learned to orient to the visualization in a new way so that the required struc?tures became visible; and the teacher has learned to pose questions in such a way that those orientations are made possible. Out of this participation in the joint labor that produced this enacted curriculum, which occurred at the teacher’s present level of ontogenetic development, there arose a qualitatively new form of consciousness that belonged to the joint work of the group (rather than to any individual).[3] Such a new form of consciousness, which manifested itself in the structure of generalizations made, is more than learning, for it constitutes a step to a qualitatively different form of seeing and acting in his lifeworld of the classroom.

Without exaggeration, the event had created an opportunity for the teacher to develop. The social relation with these students created a zone of proximal development. The change began with the emerging need of having to learn what impedes the students in stating what they are required to see so that the connection between the material object and the theory (arrows) becomes apparent. The students, too, needed to learn what it was that they were to see and state. Both forms of change are prerequisites for further learning and for development. The teacher underwent a change in consciousness, and, therefore, the learning in the situation led to a developmental step that changed his way of thinking about learning and teaching. It is in the relation with this particular student group that an opening was created between the teacher’s current form of consciousness and the emergent one that led to a reorganization of his theory and instructional practice. There was also an opportunity for learning on the students’ part, which occurs precisely at the instant when their reply receives a positive evaluation. At that point, they might have realized that all the other ways of asking, to which they did not reply, were actually members of the same set to which the last one belong. That last query became the key to situating all the other ways of asking a question. It is a situation similar to a frequent experience, when are driven to say, “Oh, this is what you have been asking me about?”

The students could appropriately respond only when they knew what the question was, and this response was the prerequisite for making the connection between two forms of description, one pertaining to the object and the other one to its explanation (theory). This, as the other part of the database makes evident, had not happened yet during this lesson; but it would emerge over the course of the two subsequent modeling tasks that co-occurred with the other investigations that these students conducted at the time. It is there that they would have further experiences with accelerating objects, such as a cart running up an inclined plane only to return to the bottom after the upward motion has ended.

The objectively real support, here for learning and development, and the material limits of the psychological space exist for all participants. If there had been scaffolding, it would not be something that the teacher put there for students to grow. And the scaffolding would not have been one-sided but rather would have involved all participants symmetrically (like the vines in Fig. 3.7). Without the objective presence of the communication in the public arena of group talk, no exchange could have occurred. Unless there is joint activity, participants would not have a common relation nor could they achieve something together. But joint activity is one, not two activities external to each other-one teaching , the other learning—that somehow and mysteriously come together. It is because the participants inhabit a common world, and make available to each other the reality in which they live that {teaching I learning} [obucenie] irreducibly is joint activity and requires to be theorized as such. We may therefore say that a zone of proximal development is premised on the existence of a social relation, a common speech field, and the joint labor that transcends any attempt to make it up from elementary entities (i.e. “teacher” and “student”). But if there is a zone of proximal development in a symmetrized relation, then it exists for all participants irrespective of their current level of development. In fact, the episode shows that such a zone has to be established by means of joint labor and a common speech field, because it did not initially exist. The zone of proximal development first has to be born in and from the joint labor of teacher and students. A teacher, therefore, may undergo in the praxis of teaching not only learning (i.e. marginally improving what she does) but also development. Such development manifests itself, among others, in the revolutionary change in consciousness that participation in ongoing labor produces.

As in previous chapters, the fragment also gives testimony for a critique to any reductionism in the nature (physiology of perception) versus nurture (seeing as) debate. The biological processes of perception were intertwined with the cultural processes of seeing as. The fragment thereby provides us with more material evidence that a Spinozist (monist) position on the thinking body explains without the usual opposition of body versus mind, body and mind (in parallel), or mind above body.

  • [1] In Chap. 4 we theorize responding in terms of its two irreducible parts: actively receiving andreplying. Responding highlights the constitutive unity/identity of environment and person—i.e.perezivanie—because its first part, actively receiving, makes thematic the environment as experienced by the person.
  • [2] Similar invitations have been reported from a study of physics teaching in Australia, where theteacher expected students to see the phenomenon relevant for learning physics theory (Roth 2006).However, the investigation showed that students saw different phenomena, leading to misunderstanding of theory and observation.
  • [3] In the literature, we have seen many studies that do not distinguish between learning and development (see Chap. 6). As a result, even though the observed changes are of the learning type,investigators draw on the concept zone of proximal development.
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