BOX 4.1 Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978:86). What children can do with the assistance of others is even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (Vygotsky, 1978:85).

The zone of proximal development embodies a concept of readiness to learn that emphasizes upper levels of competence. These upper boundaries are not immutable, however, but constantly changing with the learner’s increasing independent competence. What a child can perform today with assistance she will be able to perform tomorrow independently, thus preparing her for entry into a new and more demanding collaboration. These functions could be called the “buds,” rather than the fruits of development. The actual developmental level characterizes mental development retrospectively, while the zone of proximal development characterizes mental development prospectively (Vygotsky, 1978:86– 87).

Moll and Whitmore, 1993; Rogoff and Wertsch, 1984; from a different theoretical perspective, see Bidell and Fischer, 1997.) This line of work has drawn attention to the roles of more capable peers, parents, and other partners in challenging and extending children’s efforts to understand. It has also contributed to an understanding of the relationship between formal and informal teaching and learning situations (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and cognition distributed across people and tools (Salomon, 1993).

As a result of these theoretical and methodological developments, great strides have been made in studying young children’s learning capacities. To summarize an enormous body of research, there have been dramatic increases in knowledge in four major areas of research, illustrated in this chapter:

  1. Early predisposition to learn about some things but not others No evidence exists that infants come into the world as “blank slates” capable only of registering the ambient events that impinge on their senses in an undisciplined way. Young children show positive biases to learn types of information readily and early in life. These forms of knowledge, referred to as privileged domains, center on broadly defined categories, notably physi-

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