Tag Archives: Vygotsky

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky was able to look past other theorist’s approaches and see that children don’t only learn after they develop, but that they start to learn as soon as they are born.   He also states that learning needs to be matched to the developmental level.  It wouldn’t make sense to give a first grader geometry because most 1st graders are not ready to learn those skills.

This part of the theory helps us in the counseling field to know that even thought someone is a certain age chronologically; it does not mean they are in the same place mentally.  We should look at each person as an individual and assume they will be able to grasp the concepts you give them in the same way as the last person you were talking to.

Vygotsky states there are two levels of development, the actual development level and the zone of proximal development.  The actual development level is where a child is actually at in development.  This level shows you what a child can do right now.  The zone of proximal development shows us what a child will be able to do.  It is defined by looking at what a child can do first without help and then looking at what they can do with some adult guidance.

This helps a counselor by allowing them to see future cycles and maturation processes.  Knowing what is probably coming will help the counselor choose the best treatment for that child.  Instead of making a guess based on other children.  Instead of making a guess based on other children, the guess is more educated and centered on that one person.

Vygotsky also says children’s development is structured by cultural artifacts and specific social experiences, meaning, knowledge not only comes from the environment around the child but also that the child learns from the beliefs and values of the adults in the culture around them.

Another belief of Vygotsky’s is that human development is influenced on the levels of phylogenetic, historical, and ontogenetic.  The phylogenetic level says that we are different from the apes because we have more abilities than they do, but still looks at development through evolution.  The historical level says that cultures have developed differently over centuries in order to create diversity throughout the world.  The ontogenetic level says that each person’s development is dependent on culture.

This information is useful to a counselor when trying to understand where certain beliefs or behaviors come from.  Many cultures have different views when it comes to things like marriage, relationships and religion.  It would be very helpful to the counselor to know these things as well as how the client’s culture views the counseling process.

Practical Application of Vygotsky

Vygotsky “believed that all human cognition takes place within a matrix of social history, and thus cognition must be considered within this context.”  (Bergen, 2008, p. 105)  This is of particular interest to me since I am a high school history teacher by training, so to put it bluntly, I couldn’t agree with Vygotsky more on this point.  The way in which individuals acquire both thought and language is firmly situated within the context of the culture within which they reside.  This means that when we endeavor to help an individual with who, at first glance, may appear to have a “learning disability…” we should take into account the cultural symbolism that the child will likely identify with.  We should make every effort to communicate in terms that the child will understand, and that others will also understand if the child were to imitate the words or actions.  As an example, if we are working with a child that resides in a predominately Spanish speaking neighborhood where Spanish is the language of choice, then we should utilize that language to facilitate learning (even if it is too soon to be verbal).

Furthermore, when constructing interventions that are intended to maximize learning potential for children, we should take Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” into consideration in effort to make learning “relevant” for the learner.  “The ZPD is the distance between what tasks children can do independently and their potential competence at those tasks, which can be achieved with adult or peer assistance.”  (Bergen, 2008, p. 107)  In more simple terms, learning is social… and we learn how to extend our thought and action by observing people around us in a social context.  In early childhood, this takes form in pretend play… which Vygotsky would assert is absolutely essential for later school success.  We should encourage and facilitate private speech to assist the child in internalizing action with thought, especially during difficult problem solving activities.  In short, during play therapy, have them “talk it out.”  This may be as simple as continually asking “tell me what you’re doing right now.”  (Bergen, 2008, p. 111)


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Bergen, D. (2008). Human development: Traditional and contemporary theories. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.