What would Vygotsky make of the breadth and diversity of the social world many young people now inhabit? How would he view the potential of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to name but a few digital interaction tools? How would he adapt his view of learning to include the potential of the virtual world? Or would he need to? Perhaps it is simply a matter of redefining and extending our definition of the environment within which students learn and of accepting that their learning is influenced by an increasingly wide and diverse range of people, activities and contexts, both within and beyond school. The society with which young people interact is potentially much more nebulous, flexible and intangible than that of any other generation. Further, the way they interact with and make sense of things within and across this extended environment can vary greatly.
Vygotsky (1962) also argued that learning occurs within the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD emphasises the importance of adults, of teachers, in enabling young people to learn. The ZPD is the difference between what a child can do alone and what is beyond their current developmental capacity. It is what they can do with appropriate scaffolding and support from a ‘teacher’.
In the twenty-first century, young people learn 24/7/365 (allowing for sleep). As discussed in Collaboration in Learning (Lee and Ward, 2013), teaching and learning do not occur only within schools. Teachers can be found among peers, parents, grandparents and sports coaches to name a few. Many young people are self-taught as they use the knowledge and information readily available to them in the digital world; they provide their own support to move beyond their current capabilities. They are continually interacting with the world around them, submitting and decoding messages, drawing inferences from what they see and hear. They use a wide range of media and many are adept at choosing the most appropriate medium for a particular message or activity. The ZPD is, in a sense, much larger than it has ever been, and certainly is not limited to the school or the teachers within the school.
There are many possible examples of using other teachers, teachers not employed by the school to deliver formal education (for some examples see Lee and Ward, 2013). As a classroom teacher, you can set inquiry tasks that require students to engage with adults in their wider worlds. Give them opportunities to learn from others, be they grandparents, family friends or experts from the ‘real world’. We should not dictate with whom they must communicate or how the learning must occur when they are completing projects or assignments. Set the scene, provide the motivation and then allow students to manage their own learning experience. Ask them to interview people or to tell a story from their family history (a good way of recognising different cultures and heritages). Perhaps they can talk to a local ‘hero’ and retell their story, emphasising the value of the local area and the people within it. Do not treat such activities as an ‘added extra’. Ensure that you discuss their work and that they are given chances to present it — show you value it as part of the curriculum, that it is important learning for everyone.
Also look for ways to bring the outside into the classroom, using guest speakers and experts. Those with authentic stories to tell can provide valuable learning experiences. Many will not charge for their time, particularly if they are retired or linked to the school. Look out into your community and see what resources are available. There may be a writer, an artist, a graphic designer or someone who has a story to tell. There may be grandparents or parents willing to come in and work with students.
There is more evidence of the importance of recognising the potential for learning beyond the classroom in the work of Valsinier (1997). Valsinier also used the idea of zones when talking about learning. He too argued that children develop through their relationships with their environment and those within it, that learning is a social construct and as such requires and uses literacy skills.
Valsinier’s theory is based on the existence of two zones: the Zone of Free Movement (ZFM) and the Zone of Promoted Action (ZPA). Essentially, Valsinier argues that children learn both through independent interaction with their environment (the ZFM) and through more directed activities (the ZPA). The role of adults and teachers is to ensure that the environment of young people, whether within the ZFM or the ZPA, is resource rich, that it enables self-regulated and independent learning. The role of a teacher is not always to control the learning. That is not to say children do not need guidance, do not need to be ‘taught’ the basics. That is essential, but they also need to be given opportunities to explore, to interact with others and to extend their own passions and interests. Think about your classroom and the learning experiences of your students. To what extent do you, and they, operate within a ZPA rather than a ZFM? Do they only get to work independently, to make choices and to follow their interests, when the ‘real work’ is finished? Or have you set up a resource-rich environment within which it is safe for children to explore and to learn, to make choices and to discover new things. Is the guidance offered relevant to their current developmental needs, to their ZPD?
As with Vygotsky’s theory this idea of zones is extended and enriched by the networked and digital world of the twenty-first century. For young people, the world extends far beyond their immediate surroundings. They no longer need accept physical boundaries of time and space. For school to be relevant, the same ideas apply. To ignore the rich learning experiences that occur beyond the school gates and outside the curriculum, to suggest that young people are not developing literacy skills beyond the classroom, is to trivialise the world they inhabit and risk making school even more irrelevant than it already is to many of them.
If one thinks of culture as the ‘way things are done’, as the norms of behaviour, than the culture of young people outside school is often very different to that within. Just as it is increasingly acknowledged that culture and heritage are important, that teachers need to understand the backgrounds of their children, it is also important that schools value and acknowledge the way the young of the twenty-first century communicate and interact with their worlds.