A Reconceptualization of Current Teaching Practices Using Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development as a Lens

In the early twentieth century, Lev Vygotsky outlined his sociocultural approach to developmental psychology, including his concept of the “zone of proximal development”(Miller, 2011). Vygotsky’s approach was contextualist in nature and involved looking at the child as the unit of study within the context of a specific activity and culture, and building on prior knowledge (de Vries, 2005). In this evaluation, I will explore Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and relevant research that shows various applications of Vygotsky’s theory in education.

I will also analyze and reflect my current teaching context, while using Vygotsky as a lens to synthesize a reconceptualization of my teaching practice with the zone of proximal development representing the core of a new philosophical and pedagogical approach. Vygotsky and the “zone of proximal development” In the early twentieth century, Lev Vygotsky outlined his theories of developmental psychology, which took a sociocultural view of the child in the context of their culture, moving through the “zone of proximal development” (Miller, 2011).

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The zone of proximal development describes a theoretical construct that between tasks a child is able to achieve independently, and a more advanced task that they are able to achieve with meaningful guidance and interaction with a teacher (or any instructional figure) (pp. 174-175). He further outlined the social context of this theory by saying that “The path from object to child and from child to object passes through another person” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 30 as quoted in Miller, 2011, pp. 170-171).

What this statement implies is that children do not learn in a vacuum as it were, there must be some kind of social interaction in the context of their culture because “the mind is inherently social” (p. 170). Therefore, according to Vygotsky, meaningful social interaction results in the advancement of skills in children as learners. De Vries (2005) noted that Vygotsky observed that all functions of a learner’s cultural development appear in two phases. These two phases, in order, are 1) encountering a new function as part of a social interaction, and 2) when the learner internalizes this new function and is able to achieve it independently.

The time between phase one and two is also the zone of proximal development. Warford (2011) notes that “the most salient feature of a Vygotskyan way of seeing teaching and learning is a holistic, authentic approach that is consistent with whole language rather than the dominant IRE (teacher initiates, student responds, teacher evaluates) recitation scripts that pervade the traditional classrooms”. This is essential in understanding Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development as a construct that builds on exploratory and experiential learning.

Fundamentally speaking, Warford discusses that moving through the zone of proximal development involves identifying a skill, determining the level of that skill the student is able to accomplish on his or her own, and through social interaction helping the student achieve the same self-efficacy at the next level of that skill. Miller (2011 p. 176) notes that Rogoff (1990) describes how the social interaction required to move students through the zone of proximal development can be indirect or through a distance.

This is to say that learning can be passive rather than active. By observing others perform daily tasks and internalizing that behavior, learners are able to move through the zone of proximal development without direct verbal interaction. Current Research Applying Vygotsky Education De Vries (2005) conducted a study using the Vygotskyan concept of scaffolding to observe the development of vocal improvisation in a subject (his son) from the ages of twenty-four through thirty-six months.

Scaffolding is a metaphorical term that relates the mental constructs needed to move through the zone of proximal development through the physical constructs known as scaffolds, often used in the construction of buildings. In the Vygotskyan approach, scaffolding refers to building on prior knowledge. As learners reach self-efficacy, a new level of “scaffolding”, or a new social interaction, is added so that movement through the zone of proximal development to the next level may be achieved.

De Vries interacted with his subject in such a way that upon internalization of a skill, and repetition without assistance, he built upon that knowledge with an expansion of the previous skill immediately through a new interaction. For example, once the subject sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on his own, de Vries began improvising melodies using the interval of a perfect fifth (the opening interval of “Twinkle Twinkle”). The subject immediately began imitating the experimenter, and shortly was improvising his own melodies using perfect fifths (2005, p. 09). This study does exemplify some of the highlights of the zone of proximal development in that it makes clear the process of moving through the zone with assistance. Evidence of scaffolding by building on prior knowledge is clearly present. The small sample size of one subject however does not make de Vries study conclusive. In “The Role of the Adult in the Child’s Early Musical Socialization: A Vygotskian Perspective”, Adachi (1994) explores the cultural aspect of Vygotsky’s theories.

Adachi notes “children’s socialization is linked to social interaction in which culturally bound thought processes are shaped” (1994, p. 26). Adachi also explores the roles played by adults and peers to facilitate the musical socialization of children. Adachi explores how through culturally relevant social interaction, the adult not only introduces and guides learners through the zone of proximal development, but by practicing newly acquired skills with the learner is as important a part of the interaction as the initial transmission of the new skill (1994, pp. 26-27). Froelich (2007, pp. 0-91) describes the term “Constructionism” in education. This concept reflects a sociological approach to education based on Vygotsky’s ideas. Sociologists such as Dewey (1933, as cited in Froelich, 2011, p. 90) interpret this theory to mean that education should rely on “doing” rather than traditional educational models. In this model, Learners build on their educational experiences instead of calling on lecture material. Lourenco (2012) also notes how Vygotsky puts a “great emphasis on action” because it is action that forms the basis for the process of understanding.

Current Teaching Practice and Approaches The extent of my current teaching practice as the Middle School Band Director at Easton Middle School in Easton, Massachusetts is expansive. My middle school responsibilities include 7th and 8th grade concert band which meet every day, fourth grade (beginner) and fifth grade saxophone group lessons (several sections that meet weekly), and two extra-curricular jazz ensembles that meet weekly (one “B” band comprised of 6th and 7th graders, and one “A” band comprised of 8th and 9th graders).

My high school responsibilities are Assistant Marching Band Director, Assistant Jazz Band Director, Show Choir Pit Band Director, and Musical Pit Orchestra Director. My district also operates a private lesson studio within the music department grades 4-12 and I am a clarinet/sax teacher responsible for 15 music students in this private setting. I would like to begin by analyzing the groups I see on a once per week basis. These groups comprise the bulk of my teaching load with the exception of 7th and 8th grade concert band .

As my approach to these classes stands at present, they are the furthest away from compatibility with Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development. My weekly groups meet for such a short amount of time and there is so much I need them to accomplish in that time frame there is very little interaction and a lot of lecture. The structure of these lessons more closely resembles a method of instruction that Freire (2000) decries as the “banking method”. Freire (pp. 71-71) describes this approach by observing: “Narration leads students to memorize mechanically the narrated content.

Worse, yet, it turns them into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles,’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are. ” Upon reflection, it is alarming how those particular sessions can reflect that methodology. In the 4th and 5th grade lessons that only get one half hour per week, I frequently find myself saying, boys and girls, now is not the time for questions, just do as I ask.

This is ostensibly to impart the most instruction in the shortest period, in theory to prepare those students for middle school band by “teaching them” the necessary skills. When I approach my weekly ensemble rehearsals I often times find myself actually thinking: “we have a show two rehearsals from now, I need to get this, this, and this done. ” I have gone entire rehearsals simply dictating musical decisions, repeating them until they work within the ensemble, and jumping to run-throughs at the end with no interaction between student and teacher beyond dictation and critique.

The only ensemble I see multiple times per week is the seventh and eight grade concert band class. The seventh and eight grade concert band performs as one ninety-three person unit that meets in two separate class periods of approximately 45 students each. The issue with this course is that often times if period one band progresses to a certain point, I will overextend period two band that day to “catch up” to period one because they are part of the same performing unit. This is often at the expense of several learning moments in period two band in particular.

I have actually said to my class before, “Guys we don’t have time to talk about that, period one got such and such done today, we can’t fall behind! ” While there are many aspects of this course that I do think comply with some of Vygotsky’s theory, I will attempt to align all aspects of the course to the zone of proximal development. Reconceptualization The best place to begin the examination of the reconceptualization of the way I approach my classes is with my private lesson students.

Though unintentional, my private lessons almost perfectly align with Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development. During the first and second lesson, I analyze all aspects of a students’ current level of playing. I determine his or her current understanding of embouchure, tone production, technical fluency, intonation, and knowledge of individual musicianship concepts such as articulation and reading. In each successive lesson I use modeling, playing duets, and solo critique, to guide each student through the zone of proximal development to the next level of each skill we work on.

We continue to work on a skill together until the desired level of self-efficacy is reached, then we move on to the next skill. In the private lesson setting, I continually interact with students and tailor the material we use to their interests. If a student would prefer to work on classical solos, I find level-appropriate classical solos and use that work as a vehicle to teach skills. Applying Vygotsky’s theories to my lesson groups and ensembles presents a challenging issue.

When I first read about the work of Vygotsky, I felt as though my fourth grade through eighth grade instrumental curriculum lined up well in terms of navigating the zone of proximal development and scaffolding by building on prior knowledge. After reading Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (2000), I began to question how much of my curriculum was “banking” and how much was actually the “scaffolding” I claimed it was. As I have already stated, I feel that the way I approach fourth and fifth grade instrumental lessons is almost completely the “banking approach”.

I present skills to the students, listen to them, analyze their performance, and move on to new skills. The students at this age are either beginners or in the second year of instrumental instruction and as such I feel as though I have marginalized their opinions and interests. Our interaction has been lecturer to listener more than guide to learner as Vygotsky discusses. The basic skill set that I teach fourth and fifth graders is sound since the quality of performance has not suffered due to this approach.

However there is certainly a way to incorporate more social and cultural interaction into thirty-minute fourth and fifth grade lesson groups. For example, using a simple pop song the children know such as “What Makes You Beautiful” by, One Direction to teach legato articulation. After reading Freire, I attempted this in the fifth grade. The melody to the chorus of the song uses only concert F, Eb, and Bb (the same notes as hot cross buns). The students and I were able to discuss their affinity for One Direction, how we could use one of their songs to learn something on the saxophone.

We learned by rote as I modeled the song on my saxophone, and by the end of the lesson, almost all fifth graders had achieved self-efficacy in legato articulation. The students moved from knowing that articulation is using your tongue, to understanding that legato articulation is a smooth, connected articulation, at first with guidance, and then by themselves. Integrating this culturally and socially interactive methodology into fourth and fifth grade group lessons would bring this part of my teaching load into alignment with theory of the zone of proximal development.

Bringing my seventh and eighth grade band class into line with the zone of proximal development will be easier, but it requires careful attention to detail. While I feel that I have always relied heavily on building on prior knowledge acquired in the younger grades, I do have a tendency to follow the militaristic structure of the band rehearsal. I give a direction, the ensemble plays, I make a correction, the cycle continues until the bell rings. I rarely model in this course, and I feel like modeling is a huge part of Vygotsky’s approach.

Enduring the learning experience with the students is a key component of the social interaction of moving through the zone of proximal development. As Adachi (1994) notes, the role of the adult as “co-player” and “practice partner” is equally important in the scaffolding process. By modeling and interacting through that modeling with the students, as well as my current curriculum that scaffolds on prior knowledge, I believe that all of my large ensemble curriculum will better meet with Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development.

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