Lev Seminovich Vygotsky was born in 1896, in a town called Orsha, located in what is now Belarus. He attended Moscow State University, where he read law, literature, and philosophy. During his undergraduate years, Vygotsky developed a strong interest in psychology. Over his career, which began in teaching and research, Vygotsky became a prominent psychologist and developmental theorist.
Vygotsky’s greatest legacy in the field of education was his cultural-historical theory of cognitive development. He argued that cognitive development is a result of social interaction and cultural influences, rather than solely an individual’s innate capabilities. This was groundbreaking in its time and is still deeply resonant today. Vygotsky’s ideas continue to shape our understanding of how learning works and how social influences and cultural contexts can and should inform our present educational practices and research.
A key concept in Vygotsky’s theory is the Zone of Proximal Development. He introduced the idea to describe the gap (or the shaded area in a Venn diagram) between what a learner can do independently (actual development) and what a learner cannot do (insurmountable difficulty). The Zone of Proximal Development is the space where the learner can make meaningful progress, with the right help.
Vygotsky’s ideas about cognitive development reveal a few key principles that can be followed to support mastery learning:
Stretch skills: Focus instruction on knowledge and skills that are just beyond the learner’s ability to master without help.
More knowledgeable others: Create an ecosystem around the learner. One that includes other people who understand the learning activity better than the learner. This could be teachers, of course, but also, mentors, family members, and classroom peers. All people who can support, inspire, and reinforce the learning process.
Skillful tutor: Give every learner a capable guide in their journey to master what they learn. The guide should be an educator with the expertise to tailor learning strategies to meet the differentiated needs of individual children. Strategies that can provide each child the appropriate level of challenge and support needed to promote optimal learning and development.
Scaffolding: Make sure that the learning process is supported by scaffolding – the temporary support, guidance, and assistance a child requires as they work on new learning concepts and activities.
Scaffolding enables a learner to successfully navigate the space between what they can do independently and what they can achieve with help. It involves the gradual release of responsibility from the teacher (or more knowledgeable other) to the learner. It should continue until the learner can perform each task independently and continue progressing in a more self-directed way.
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and his theory on cognitive development continue to bear significant influence on educational practices. They contribute to the ongoing development of instructional strategies that aim to bridge the gap between what a learner knows and what they need to master. That influence has found its way into the architecture of adaptive mastery learning solutions. Tools that are now emerging with potential to revolutionize teaching and learning, even as the 4th Industrial Revolution digitizes its way into the heart of global education development.