Piaget, Vygotsky, and the Pedagogy of Learning Diversity

IanHere’s an article written by Eagle Hill School senior Ian Mellin exploring the ideas of Lev Vygotsky and Social Development Theory:

In lessons on child development, Piaget is nearly always mentioned. He proposed a handful of developmental stages that a person progresses though as he or she ages. A cornerstone of his theory is the idea of self-directed advancement. He believed that a child grows as it explores its own environment, and this exploration is a catalyst for stage advancement.  Conspicuously absent from his theory are interactions with peers.  While he does mention contact with others, he uses the manner in which one socializes as a diagnostic tool rather than as a vector for growth. As time has worn on, Piaget’s work has been viewed with increasing skepticism. Critics take issue with the rigid stages of development, stating that they are not accurate representations of human development. They also criticize Piaget’s dismissal of social interaction as a factor for growth. An alternative theory of child development, created by Lev Vygotsky is gaining increasing credibility in some circles, including Eagle Hill School.

Vygotsky unfortunately died before completing his work, leading to some gaps in his theories. However, what exists and has been translated from his native Russian to English has gained considerable favor with some American psychologists. The most noticeable difference between Vygotsky and Piaget is their viewpoints on social interaction. Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky believed that social interaction was vital to the developmental process.  Critical to his theory was the concept of a Zone of Proximal Development. At its most simplistic, the idea of a zone of proximal development is that a person can learn very well if given a task that is just outside their usual capability’s with the aid of another, more skilled person.  A way to use the zone of proximal development in teaching is though scaffolding. Scaffolding is when a teacher initially gives lots of support for a task but decreases support as the lesson wears on. In doing so, the teacher keeps the task within the students’ zone of proximal development.  The task is hard enough to encourage growth, but not so difficult that the student becomes frustrated and gives up. A subset of Vygotsky’s teaching theory is the concept of reciprocal teaching. A teacher employing this method will ask questions about a text, and attempt to start a discussion. Vygotsky’s teaching methods have gained favor with some schools, in particular Eagle Hill School.

Eagle Hill School prides itself on its teaching methodology. The school believes heavily in individualized coursework and teacher-student interaction, both of which echo Vygotsky’s idea of a zone of proximal development.  Eagle Hill School employs methods of scaffolding in both the large and the small scale. On the larger scale each student is assigned to a class that a teacher expects will best be suited to their abilities, regardless of age or ability in other subjects. For example, it is possible for freshmen to be put in a very high-level math class, but a low level reading course. Both classes are expected to be just beyond the student’s self-perceived abilities, encouraging growth. In the smaller scale teachers will often adjust an individual’s coursework to better suit their capabilities. This adjustment of work in the large and small scale are very good examples of scaffolding.  In addition to scaffolding, many teachers are fond of the reciprocal teaching method. Several reading courses are largely discussion based, and some science classes are held in a manner where the teacher will lecture, but then ask questions in the middle of the lecture and give time for the students to make observations or pose questions of their own. While Vygotsky’s teachings may not be as widely acknowledged as Piaget’s but they have found acceptance in Eagle Hill School.

-Ian Mellin

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