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Learning in theory and practice: Vygotsky’s ZPD and physical education in primary education
Age-graded schooling is one of the most common and conventional features of today’s academic environment. For younger learners in the primary education levels, this separation of young children from adolescents may seem on the face of it like a common sense approach to education—yet, as Gray and Feldman (2004) point out, separation such as this actually is more restrictive to the educative experience than it is facilitative. The reason is found in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) theory. Vygotsky was an early 20th century Soviet thinker who articulated the idea that individuals learn most effectively when they are aided by other skilled individuals who know how to perform a certain task. Child learners can benefit, for example, from being placed in a zone of proximal development: alone or confined to a sphere in which they are surrounded by only their own peers—young children like themselves who have none of the skill sets that this same group of learners is expected to develop over time—they are cut off from the essential source of learning, i.e., those adolescents who are older who understand and have the skills to perform. Yet, take these same children and place them in a zone in which they are near adolescents—older individuals who have acquired certain skills—and the young learners will be more apt to pick up on the skill sets that they require in order to advance in knowledge acquisition. This paper will explore Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development and show how it can be related to my own teaching in physical education at the primary education level.
The zone of proximal development is the area that exists between what an individual can do on his or her own without any help from others and what an individual cannot do. The ZPD is that region in the learning environment in which “the other” approaches the learner offering assistance in some form. This assistance can literally take any form: it can be as simple as pointing to an object, the name of which the learner does not know; it can be as involved as demonstrating for a learning how to perform a function, like climbing a rope or changing a tire.
The point is that the ZPD is that shade of experience in which the learner gets to follow a teacher, mentor, or tutor and use the guidance offered to do a task, gain understanding, or develop a skill. Without ZPD, the individual learner is cut off from the source of knowledge. With ZPD, the individual learner is given access to those who have the ability to pass on knowledge to others and the learner can take advantage of this access to learn at his or her own pace. It is through ZPD that the idea of self-directed learning is made possible (Gray & Feldman, 2004).
As Crain (2010) notes, Vygotsky was concerned about the manner in which educators approach education. He believed that teachers should be there to guide—not to present material to students that was beyond their reach and then push, shove, pull or drag them to the next level before the young learner had firmly grasped the ideas presented previously. Inherent in this belief was the concept of scaffolding, which is essentially intertwined with the ZPD process. Scaffolding is the teaching method in which the learner is empowered to “solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal through a gradual shedding of outside assistance” (Pinantoan, 2013). The notion of scaffolding is inherent in the idea of ZPD because it is in the ZPD that the learner engages with the guide in a manner that is direct and purposeful. The learner is mindful of what is going on and the guide is mindful of the knowledge acquisition process being activated. It is a zone in which active learning is transpiring, which is a type of learning that has been deemed as most effective at helping students to develop a deep down understanding of concepts and acquisition of needed skills (Jensen, Kummer & Godoy, 2015).
Education is a kind of apprenticeship, according to Gray and Feldman (2004), and this apprenticeship “was implicit in the educational writings of Lev Vygotsky, who claimed that children acquire knowledge and develop skills through interactions with others who are more competent than themselves” (p. 111). By interacting with peers outside their own age group, children can pick up on traits, manners, skills, knowledge, and examples that they otherwise would not have access to. A school that facilitates this kind of action, like the Sudbury Valley School used as a case in point in the study by Gray and Feldman (2004) can lay the foundation for growth and development that all schools aim to achieve but that schools which are particularly aware of the importance of ZDP can achieve most successfully.
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Physical education at the primary education level is more important today than ever before—particularly with the rise of obesity among school-aged children and the risk of the onset of diabetes associated with obesity (Todd, Street, Ziviani, Byrne & Hills, 2015; Mozaffarian, 2016). Hills, Dengel and Lubans (2015) have shown that teachers can play an important role in educating students about the need for and benefits of physical activity to reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes later in life. By developing good habits with respect to physical activity, young children can have healthier cardiovascular systems and a brighter future. While teachers are, of course, crucial in guiding children to embrace physical activity and to acquire knowledge of exercises through physical education, the zone of proximal development can actually play an even more important part in this acquisition because it is through the process of guidance that young learners are empowered to do the things they can do with a little help and assistance from those who can do on their own. Teachers can help but so too can older students.
The great part of ZPD being used in schools is that it does not just rely on teachers to serve as the guide or mentor for primary school learners. Rather it can give older students the opportunity to act as mentors and develop a sense of personal responsibility and leadership. ZPD helps learners to learn and teachers to teach. Anyone who possesses a skill is a teacher in waiting in the light of ZPD. Anyone who has the potential to master a task with a little guidance is a student in waiting in the light of ZPD. Thus, the benefits of ZPD are enormous in the field of primary level physical education—especially considering the tightening of school budgets and the stretching of the duties of more and more teachers. By allowing older pupils to mix with younger ones, the entire school or at least the entire gym or wherever physical education is practiced can become a zone of proximal development.
This idea is crucial, in fact: ZPD is not just a method that a teacher should implement from time to time but rather it is an environment that a teacher can create with the help of the school place administration. By turning an entire classroom or an entire school into a zone of proximal development, the facilitation of education for young learners becomes much more enhanced. Barker, Quennerstedt and Annerstedt (2015) showed in their study of group work sequences in physical education that there is a “flexible and fluid nature of ‘expertness’ as it exists within groups” (p. 409), which gives young learners the opportunity to compare guides, to experience different training styles, and to find a mentor that works for them. The fluid nature of “expertness” as Barker et al. (2015) call it is one of the realities of the learning experience: everyone has come across the fact that experts are often divided in their opinions as to what methods for such and such an activity work best or why such and such a solution is preferable to another. Young learners who catch on to this reality at an early age through the experience of being in a ZPD for their physical education are better positioned to be aware of how experts should be evaluated rather than accepted out of the gate.
Physical education is particularly helpful for forming the consciousness and awareness of the young primary school student—not just for learning physical exercises or burning calories. The mind is exercised during the active learning process in the classroom and during physical education it is given a new kind of learning experience—the experience of exercise through recreational activity. Jumping jacks, jogging, sprinting, jump roping, rope climbing, tumbling, racing, playing basketball, playing baseball or dodgeball or kickball—all of these activities help to develop the brain as well as the body. They require tactical thinking, forethought, decision making, attention to detail, awareness of….....
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