Learning and development, for Lev Vygotsky, is explained in terms of his theory of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which posits that learning precedes development in school age children (1978). The meaning of this statement will become apparent as I compare ZPD and three other learning and development theories that were contemporary with Vygotsky’s time.
Vygotsky first identifies Piaget as one who sees development as (the maturation of a child) preceding learning or as a necessary precondition to learning. This view espouses that development is a tool for learning to use, but one that has no effect on the base. Learning is a scaffold superimposed over the innate abilities of a child, such as logic and so forth.
Next is Vygotsky’s characterization of James as one who sees learning and development as the same, or at least indistinguishable. In this view, learning is the mastery of conditioned responses, the acquisition of the range of habits and behavioral tendencies.
Lastly, Vygotsky sites Koffka as viewing learning and development as separate entities but ones that co-evolve and interact in a way that, generating one is generating the other. For example, if Billy acquires a skill, Koffka would assume that in acquiring the skill, Billy also acquired the ability to generalize that skill. Or, in other words, learning in one area affects general learning abilities.
Vygotsky explains that all three are inaccurate views of learning and development. Development does not necessarily precede learning, learning and development are not one and the same, and acquiring a skill is generalizable only to the extent that it has properties in common with other acquired skills.
ZPD, on the other hand, sees learning and development in a sequence and nature apart from the three theories discussed. ZPD is made of two other parts: a child’s actual development level (ADL) and potential development level (PDL). ADL is what a child can do or work out on his or her own, thus the abilities that have already developed. PDL is the level at which the child can perform with a certain portion of assistance from a peer or mentor, or in other words the abilities that have not yet matured. The difference of ADL and PDL is the ZPD.
ZPD is claimed to be a more effective indicator of mental abilities than just assessing a child’s current abilities in isolation. For example, if two children were assessed to have an equal score of 8 on a particular task when acting alone, many would assume that they were at the same level of metal abilities on that task. If, however, the same level of assistance were administered to each on the task and the scores resulted in 9 and 12. It would become apparent that the child who scored 12 with assistance had greater potential to acquire that ability more rapidly than the other who scored a 9 with the same assistance. Hence, ZPD shows to what extent abilities are beginning to mature, not just what abilities have matured.
The implications of ZDP are that development lags behind learning, though in a complex manner, not as a shadow follows a child. Learning awakens the developmental processes through social interactions with peers and teachers in such a way that would not occur if the child were in isolation. These burgeoning abilities have the potential to mature into an actual development level, instigated by the social practice of learning.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Chapter 6: Interaction between Learning and Development. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes (pp. 79-91). Harvard University Press.