Early Childhood Matters Magazine Feature


Learning Begins EarlyThe socio-constructivist theory of psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), which states that children (and adults) co-construct their theories and knowledge through the relationships that they build with other people and the surrounding environment, has been instrumental in the development of the Reggio Emilia early childhood education model. The Reggio Emilia model, which also draws on the work of others such as Jean Piaget, Howard Gardner and Jerome Bruner, promotes an image of the child as a strong, capable protagonist in his or her own learning, and, importantly, as a subject of rights.  It is distinguished by a deeply embedded commitment to the role of research in learning and teaching.  It is an approach where the expressive arts play a central role in learning and where a unique reciprocal learning relationship exists between practitioner and child.  Much attention is given to detailed observation and documentation of learning and, in the Reggio Emilia model, the learning process takes priority over the final product.

Early Childhood Matters Photo - Jon Spaull

In his article “A Vygotskian perspective on learning, culture and an education that matters”, David W. Kritt provides a clear outline of Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development and the resulting outflows for optimizing learning in children.

The work of Piaget focused on the individual interacting with the physical world.  Vygotsky emphasizes the social and cultural component in even the most basic of a child’s activity, and focuses on the interaction between child and caregiver in interpreting and developing constructs and purposeful activity.

Early Childhood Matters Photo - Jon SpaullAs children move from pre-verbal to verbal stages of development, language becomes increasing important in problem solving.  “Young children cannot use direct action to approach problems they cannot solve.  Language use is limited to verbally expressing desires or directly addressing an object.  This is followed by attempts to use a tool (for example, to hit a problematic object) or talking about something they’ve done after doing it.  Sometimes children will stop their own attempts and ask an adult for help, or ask a question.  Asking a question or asking for help keeps the activity going and indicates that a child has a plan, but cannot totally enact it.  Once children can talk about something before they do it, they have better control over what they’re doing.  It helps in understanding both objects and goals, as well as contributing to monitoring one’s own behaviour.  Speech that originally had a social, communicative function is internalized and used in thought.  When speech and action become integrated, the child can use words to create a plan; this affords much greater flexibility in solving a task or attaining a goal.”

Vygotsky stressed the importance of play as a major contributor to cognitive and social development, allowing the child to step away from the here and now, creating a symbolic achievement and dealing with unrealized desires, thus helping to reconfigure the child’s relation to reality.  “Vygotsky argued that, to be fully engaged in play, children have to notice things they do not usually attend to, increasing awareness of social roles and changing their relations to objects.  Instead of acting upon immediate impulses, the child follows the rules of the imaginary situation, and this requires a great deal of self-control.  Because the child’s desires are related to the imaginary situation, meaning comes to dominate action.”

Vygotsky’s conclusion was that learning is not a process of direct transmission of information and skills, but a process in which guidance and personal agency function as integral parts of an interdependent co-construction between teacher and learner.  “A good teacher must carefully observe how a child approaches a task and intervene in a way that not only validates and encourages correct aspects of the performance, but also re-directs whatever is not successful by suggesting an alternative approach.”

There is a “dance” that begins with the parent-child interaction in breastfeeding.  As the child moves to mastery of practical skills, modified implements, guidance of positioning, partial completion of a task for a child to finish (e.g. tying shoelaces), suggestions of features to focus on (e.g. in puzzle-solving) are tools commonly used to assist in learning.

A key Vygotskian learning concept is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).  “The distance between the child’s current functioning and what the child can do with assistance is the child’s potential functioning.  This is the Zone of Proximal Development, the area in which development occurs.

Vygotsky recommended, rather than simply modeling behaviour, “adults assist children by cuing or even showing them how to do something, but in a way that emphasizes overcoming obstacles rather than simply copying behaviour demonstrated by an adult,” and which suggests that there are many ways to accomplish a goal.  His observation demonstrated that this led to a greater range of creative solutions.  “… all good educators know that children cannot learn something that is beyond their understanding.  But what a child can do with assistance is not beyond him or her.  Accordingly, teachers, parents, and others working with children should determine what they do on their own and the limits of what they can do with adult assistance, and then concentrate on what lies between…[to] work toward children’s potentials.”

Studies have shown the value of utilizing the Vygotskian ZPD concept in learning environments, particularly in developed countries, where children are isolated from adult activities.  In cultures where children are integrated into adult environments, children learn traditional skills (e.g. weaving) by observation and participation.  “Adults adjust tasks according to their perception of a child’s ability to accomplish them, and support attempts to do new things and acquire new skills.”

Vygotsky’s insights into learning and culture have relevance beyond early childhood education.  The scientific method taught in formal schooling, which focuses on learning flexible concepts which can be generalized to many situations, and in which emotional involvement is removed from deliberation, can be especially challenging for children who come from families and cultural backgrounds which value personal experience and experiential, interactive learning.  Putting aside personal experience is challenging for many children: “when a person’s problem solving can no longer rely on specific content, it can lose its relation to everyday reality”, which helps explain why so few students go on to take math beyond the basic minimum, for example.  David Kritt stresses that finding ways of helping learners to bridge the gap between practical and theoretical learning through challenged interdependent exploration has value throughout the learning process.

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*Photo Credits: Early Childhood Matters, June 2013  |  Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation