One of the points in which this theory differs from that of Piaget is that Vygotsky considers that the learning processes trigger the processes of development. Development cannot exist without a learning situation to provoke it, so learning stimulates development.
Vygotsky brought important contributions in regard to the problem of literacy, as he highlighted the need to focus on reading and writing activities. This is related to the difference between the children’s need to learn the spoken language and that of learning the written one. Although either of them represents a means of communication, children start speaking because they are urged by the necessity to make demands, ask questions, give replies, etc. “This is why it is necessary to generate situations and activities that provoke in the child the necessity to write and use external motivation to make him read, so that writing becomes something that the child needs to do in order to attain different goals.”
Vygotsky proves that playing and drawing are the precursors of writing, because they all use the same process of symbol transition. Drawing and playing teach the child the basics of symbolism and writing (where symbolism means “the interpretation of graphic signs and symbols”). In his study, Vygotsky sees symbolism as a mental representation of writing, and mentions the existence of a sequence of steps in the process of transformation of symbols. This sequence can be an equivalent of the three steps presented in the Diseño Curricular para la Educación Inicial (Curricular Designs for Primary School, published in 1989): the first level of symbolism, the second level (indirect symbolism) and the third level (direct symbolism).
In the first-level symbolism, writing is related to the meaning of things and actions like, for example, the names that represent different people.
Indirect symbolism (second level) does not refer directly to objects – which is why it is called indirect – but represents the spoken language which, in turn, represents objects. The spoken language acts as the connection between objects and symbols. This is the most difficult stage for children, because they have to understand that what they say needs to have the same meaning as what they write.
Finally, in the third level, the spoken language is no longer an intermediary, and writing becomes a direct symbol; this is why this level is called direct symbolism or third-level symbolism.
After conquering these three levels, the child can read and write, but learning does not end here.
From this point of view, school has an important role in the children’s development. Its objective is to turn them into literate persons, by providing the instruments they need for actively interacting with the reading and writing system.
After analyzing the work of various authors, we have extracted several characteristics of Vygotsky’s work, so that we can understand his contribution to education.
He understands the process of development as a complex dialectic process, characterized by periodicity, irregularity in the development of different functions, transformation, the interconnection of external and internal factors, and the adaptation processes that overcome and conquer all the obstacles that the child encounters. It also states that the learning process doesn’t depend entirely on the genetic factor, but is greatly influenced by the socio-cultural environment.
Further, we will try to explain some of the terms used above.
According to Vygotsky, the student doesn’t only respond to the stimuli around him, but he transforms them through his actions, with the aid of instruments.
He mentions the interconnection between the internal and the external factors, and the adaptation processes that help overcome the obstacles, because he considers that the student acquires the meanings from the external social environment (they are transmitted from one person to the other, from adults, who know more, to children), but they also have to be assimilated or absorbed by each child individually, thus allowing them to make contact with cultural instruments and adjust them to their own personality.
Vygotsky felt the need to formulate the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), in order to explain how the thinking process develops and reaches superior stages in a socio-cultural environment, where the individual starts from an external approach and gradually transforms it into an internal construction.
The Zone of Proximal Development is defined as the phase between the Zone of Real Development and the Zone of Potential Development. Physical and symbolic mediators, also known as “instruments” – school, society and activities – operate in the ZPD and they help the child reach his level of potential development.
“In time, the child needs less and less help in his efforts, as his self-regulation ability improves. Thus, he gradually progresses through the Zone of Proximal Development”, from the stage where he needs to be helped, to a level where he can obtain the same performance by himself.
The Zone of Real Development corresponds to the levels the child has already attained or, in other words, to the knowledge he has already got and the activities he can do by himself, without any help or guidance from other persons.
The Zone of Potential Development represents the activities that the child can do only with the help, support or guidance of a tutor. This zone comprises all the functions that are not yet well-developed, but are in course of development.
For many years, teaching plans and practice were based on the psychological and/or linguistic knowledge (that is, the knowledge directed at the use of language and the construction of linguistic knowledge in non-didactic situations). This type of knowledge is still important, but not enough, as none of it can explain the interaction that occurs between the three points of the didactic triangle: object of study, teacher, and student.
This is because in the last 15 years, research has focused on studying teaching and learning of reading and writing in school, so it had to analyze the contents of the teaching plans and reformulate the didactic approach.
After reading Delia Lerner’s “Reading and writing. A modern perspective”, we can draw the following conclusions:
People who elaborate the Curriculums have to decide which contents should be studied. This implies a reconstruction of the subject. This is the first level of didactic transposition (the presentation of scientific knowledge about the object or activity to be taught).
The selection of the information is essential, because it is impossible to teach the students everything. This selection must also order the information according to its importance, without neglecting the context in which the information must be inserted, at the same time avoiding an excessive isolation of the subject of study from its social function.
The sciences in which this knowledge is comprised are not enough to build the learning process. Didactic goals also play an important role and, together with the sciences, they are the source that school practices are inspired from.
For example: the main “educational goal of teaching learning and writing (…) is to make children become part of the community of readers and ‘writers’; it is to make the students citizens of the written culture…” According to this goal, the object of study in composed of the social reading and writing practices.
Once the information to be taught has been decided, it is necessary to establish the practices – in order to explain the contents and try to define the didactic conditions necessary to make them meaningful.
The social practices of reading and writing have existed for a long time and they are not independent from linguistic studies. The study of the language sciences might not be paramount, but it has contributed in a decisive manner to the conceptualization of the school practices.
The social dimension
It is almost impossible for a literate person to imagine the social life of human groups without written language. In order to form society, it is essential to talk with people. This, in turn, makes room for a social necessity: communication.
Our society requires us to be literate, which implies not only a set of abilities, like learning to read and write, but also to be able to express and argument a point of view, to make connections, compare, interpret, reflect, and think critically, among other things.
All this knowledge allows us to take part in all fields of life: political, democratic, educational, social and economic. Considering the criteria mentioned above, illiterate people cannot become part of the society.
A social problem: illiteracy
After the release of the statistics realized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1976, which stated that there were over 800 million illiterate people in the world, it was suggested that affected countries include alphabetization in their national development plans, in which both adults and children were to be included.
In adults, it was necessary to fill in the gaps, while children had to be prevented from becoming illiterate.
The most important aspect is that UNESCO recognized the failure of previous educational campaigns, stating that if the situation didn’t change, the 21st century would find a largely illiterate world.
Illiteracy has its roots in several factors, such as:
– The socio-economical dimension
– The difference between the advanced urban areas and the underdeveloped rural ones
– The socio-educational difference
– Unsolved ethnic and cultural problems
– Low standards of living (caused by global poverty or poor distribution of the available resources)
As Jose Rivero states, “…it is no coincidence that over 98% of the illiterate population lives in the poorest areas and societies of the world.”
Illiterate people have entered a vicious cycle, in which they are rejected because they cannot read or write, and cannot learn these skills either, because they have been excluded. However, it is worth mentioning that there are – although rare – programs of study meant to solve these problems.
The research has brought light over the dark side of illiteracy. The issue of school failure and dropout was already related not only to social and familial problems, or individual pathology, but also it was admitted that the problem was often caused by factors regulated by the educational system.
I love to write essays, as such I have wrote down my top two “go-to” points that I always teach my students:
- When the essay is between two to three pages long, subtitles are not necessary. When you have more pages, you can use several systems: writing subtitles, or separating the meaningful parts of the essay with numbers (I call these kinds of essays “Chinese boxes”). You shouldn’t forget that all parts of the essay should be linked. Even if we divide the essay (with subtitles, phrases or numbers), the essay as a whole should be compact. If we divide an essay, the parts that come out should continue to have an interdependent relationship.
- My most important rule is the fundamental role of the genre for the exercise and development of thought. Through the essay we “order” our thoughts. When we write essays, we prove either our “lucidity” or our “mental clumsiness”. The essay takes science out of its “excessive formalism”, and puts logic within the reach of art. Professional essayists know that truth is provisional, all doctrines have an adversary, all systems contain a figure. And, the essay is a constant search, it does nothing but rummage or remove one by one those cracks in the structure. Let’s say that the essay, a pure thought exercise, is the mirror held up to your own thoughts.
- An essay is a mix of art and science (this means that it uses creative, literary and logical elements to handle ideas). This dual essence in an essay (some will use this to say it’s a hybrid genre) is the origin of its power and difficulty. Because it’s a centaur, half one thing and half another thing, the essay can deal with all areas of knowledge and all topics. However, no matter what topic is chosen, the essay needs some “finesse” in its writing, so that it’s highly literary.
- An essay is not a commentary (writing about an opinion), but is rather a meditation, and it’s almost always derived from other people’s meditations (these people don’t necessarily have to be mentioned explicitly, although they’re usually mentioned in the footnotes or in the references). This is why the essay depends more on judgment and arguments (they’re not free opinions). The essay has to support the ideas. Better yet, the quality of an essay is measured through the quality of its ideas, the way in which they’re communicated, faced and taken into consideration. If there are no strong arguments, if they haven’t been developed beforehand, the essay becomes merely an assumption.
- An essay reasons. It’s a complete discourse. Good essays are linked in a coherent manner. It’s not about putting one idea after the other, because the addition of ideas does not constitute a good essay: you have to weave them in an organized manner, and you have to organize the ideas in a hierarchy, weighing them (let’s remember that ‘essay’ comes from ‘exagium’ which means, precisely, “weighing”). If there’s no logic in the composition of an essay, it will be difficult to get acceptable results, just as in music. This is why it’s important to make a plan, a map, a sketch – it works as a guide to write the essay.
- Just like a discourse, the essay requires a good usage of connecting elements (you have to keep a reserve of them). The connecting elements are like the hinges, the links that are necessary for the essay to not seem to be lacking cohesion. There are relationship connectors, consequence connectors and causality connectors. There are also connectors to summarize or emphasize. And, next to the connectors, it’s essential to have a perfect command of punctuation. Thanks to the comma and the semicolon (one of the most difficult-to-use punctuation signs), and thanks to the period, this is how the essay breathes, has a rhythm, a life. The inadequate or proper use of punctuation signs is what determines if our essay is monotonous or light, interesting or boring, flexible or tedious.