To what extent is Vygotsky's theory of education still relevant to the UK contemporary education system?
Vygotsky (1962), an eminent theorist, compiled numerous researches which concerned education, but the principal notion of his work was that social interaction is fundamental to cognitive development. He argued that if language and interaction are absent from classrooms, then learning may not occur.
His idea was that close interaction between teacher and student would result in cognitive enhancement of the student and that the effect of this would be exacerbated if pupils were in smaller groups. This coincides with some current views on class size. An authoritative report conducted by DfE (2011), which disseminated class sizes in the UK, found that in smaller classes pupils did better (typically those at private schools), due to the more individual attention dedicated to them by the teacher. This infers that social interaction is conducive to learning, although the report cited other factors such as socio-economic background and culture as influencing educational attainment.
This seems to be a criticism of Vygotsky’s work in its relevance with the contemporary education system, that it concentrates too heavily on the social aspect of learning and disregards other factors. There may be other things which contribute to academic attainment which Vygotsky disregards. However, one key facet of his work: scaffolding, where the teacher or another adult provides support to a child to complete a task, seems to be fairly relevant to the current UK education system. Vygotsky (1978) thought that the support would be more effective if it coincided with the learning style of the child, which seems to concur with the multi-sensory approaches which exist presently in some subjects in the UK curriculum (Ofsted, 2012).
However, a possible argument could be made that teachers may find it hard to spend individual time with pupils in a crowded classroom environment which could have numerous behaviour management challenges (Capel, Leask and Turner, 2013). A supposition could be made that Vygotsky’s idea of scaffolding may be more relevant to supplementary styles of education, such as private tutoring or tutoring centres, where the teacher or instructor is less likely to receive behaviour management challenges which would disrupt the intimate dialogue of scaffolding.
However, it seems even then the principle of scaffolding could be restricted to certain groups of society. The Sutton Trust (2014) came to the logical conclusion that more affluent groups of pupils are more likely to receive private instruction than less affluent ones. However, the concept of scaffolding could still have some relevance to mainstream education given the existence of schemes such as the Pupil Premium Catch Up Fund and the close interactions which teaching assistants may have with pupils (DfE, 2014). In these situations, as there are smaller groups of pupils, the instructor may be able to demonstrate their expertise in scaffolding to optimal effect. Nevertheless, although Vygotsky’s notion of scaffolding certainly has some applications in the contemporary UK education system, it may ultimately depend on the teacher’s ability and pedagogy to execute it, particularly their aptitude in managing a class. ;
Vygostky’s (1978) also devised the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which is supposedly the difference between what a child can do on their own and with the help of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) which could be a teacher or another adult. Furthermore, the MKO could be a fellow pupil or peer who could support the less capable student. This forms the basis of the co-operative learning structures which Kagan (2013) formulated where pupils can learn in group activities which can really accentuate the benefits of social learning. The idea of co-operative learning is that pupils can learn and gain social skills simultaneously. ;
Although Kagan was an American theorist, his approaches are consistently being integrated in UK schools as they acknowledge the benefit of pupils working together. The University of York (2013) conducted an investigation into collaborative activities into mathematics at primary level. They discovered that the benefits of collaborative activities are enhanced when more capable peers worked with ones who were less cognitively able. Furthermore, they also recognised that the effects were magnified if pupils were in smaller groups, as opposed to larger ones. ;
This again infers that Vygotsky’s theory of scaffolding is still somewhat relevant to UK education as this peer-peer instruction arguably entails scaffolding, although perhaps it is of a different nature to when an adult advises a child. However, pupils still need to have a sufficient understanding of the concept themselves to be able to explain it to a fellow student, which they could lack. However, Dale (1970, p.89) argues that we learn up to 90% of what we teach:
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Figure 1- Dale’s (1970) cone of learning
Vygotsky was specific in his work that the MKO involved in scaffolding could be another adult or a more capable peer. As scaffolding in the current UK education system can involve an adult or another pupil this demonstrates that Vygotsky’s work correlates closely with current practice. It seems that scaffolding (and henceforth Vygotsky’ theory of education) could be a useful tool for reinforcing more able pupils’ understanding of things. ;
The University’s report also concluded that multi-media (or multi-sensory) activities were more effective when combined with peer teaching and collaborative activities. This certainly seems to reinforce Vygotsky’s belief that language is central to learning due to the prevalence of collaborative activities.
However, a recurrent theme which this essay conveys is that the majority of Vygotsky’s ideas are still relevant to the current UK education system. However, they have been updated somewhat and extended or elaborated upon. This is exemplified by the notion of scaffolding still being present in UK education, but now it is often coupled by more recent pedagogical techniques such as peer to peer teaching and multi-sensory approaches. This seems to be a valid development as Vygotsky’s theory was consummated over 70 years ago and his ideas have been refined and improved to adapt with the current system of education. ;
Nevertheless, some of Vygotsky’s theoretical musings (such as his work on scaffolding) are arguably the forerunner of current educational practice. Essentially, Vygotsky’s work is very relevant to the current education system, although it has been amended and updated partially.