More Than Mindsets: Why Vygotsky Still Matters

If you've been anywhere near higher education over the last few years, I would bet that you've heard of Carol Dweck's work on mindsets.  James Lang recently wrote a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education outlining Dweck's theories and discussing why they are important for faculty to know about and to use in the classroom. 

As Lang describes, Dweck essentially "argues that people have either a 'fixed' mindset or a 'growth' mindset when it comes to their  beliefs about learning and intelligence. If you have a fixed mindset, that means you believe your intelligence is a fixed, stable quantity; someone or something stamped an IQ on your forehead at birth, and you are limited to that IQ for the remainder of your life. If you have a growth mindset, in contrast, that means you believe that your intelligence is malleable, and can improve with hard work and effort."

There is now a wealth of data from Dweck's (and others') follow-up studies to demonstrate that cultivating growth mindsets for students leads to substantial improvements in their academic performance, whereas fixed mindsets have detrimental effects on students' achievement.

I certainly do not disagree with these findings, and I think that the research on mindsets can be a valuable tool for educators, but I also think there might be more to the story of student learning.  For one thing, as Lang notes, Dweck is discussing students' beliefs about their intelligence.  Lots of things can play a part in shaping these beliefs for both good and ill.  For example, it is well known that stereotype threat and microaggresions can have significant negative effects on the kinds of beliefs college students have about their aptitude.  Other factors could have a more positive effect as well.  But where do these beliefs converge with students' precise capacities for learning?  In other words, is a growth mindset limitless in its potential?  I don't believe Dweck or anyone else would say that it is, so where then do we draw the boundaries?  Many students with whom we will work have experienced failure and will have seen limitations.  If we suddenly suggest to them that changing their beliefs will allow them to conquer all of the academic obstacles set before them, we risk inflating expectations to the point where they could do more harm than good.

In considering this question, I think that mindset research might productively intersect with the work of social psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which is still as relevant to education as it ever was.  Vygotsky produced some incredibly innovative and influential research, a portion of which was in response to Jean Piaget's theories of child development, before his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1934.  What I want to focus on for the remainder of this post, though, is Vygotsky's concept of the "zone of proximal development," which he outlined in his masterwork, the posthumously published Mind in Society (1978).

For Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development is "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by individual problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (84).  In other words, for any given subject, an individual has a range--or a zone in Vygotsky's terminology--in which she or he is able to move from point A to point B, with point A being the current level of knowledge or skills and point B being the level of understanding that is possible for this person if given help from a teacher of some sort or fellow students.  These zones fluctuate in size, so one person's zone of proximal development for, say, quantum mechanics may be bigger or smaller than another person's.  Additionally, zones can vary even for the same individual.  For example, one student's zone of proximal development for mathematical thinking may be broader than her or his zone for historical thinking.

I'll use myself as an example here as a way to help illustrate the point.  My field of training is Medieval Studies.  My zone of proximal development for studying works of medieval English literature, then, is broader than my zone for ancient philosophy, even though they are both fields in the Humanities, and is certainly more vast than my zone for Keynesian economics.  Going further, even within Medieval Studies itself, my zone for Continental literature will be smaller than that of English literature (because I do not have as much facility with Old High German as I do with Old and Middle English), and my zone for the paleography of medieval Arabic manuscripts will be smaller still.  A good teacher or some of my brilliant friends can help me to learn more in these areas, but my potential achievement in one is not the same as that for another.

Although Vygotsky's original work dealt with young children, his theories on the zone of proximal development have certainly been applied to college-level learning (see here for one good example of this research).  So what, then, can we take from this to assist in the work we do in the classroom?  It seems to me that the key for applying Vygotsky's work to the research on mindsets is that zones have both beginning and end points.  There is an upper boundary to a zone of proximal development beyond which the student will only experience frustration and limited results.  Within the zone is where the best teaching can happen, though, and this is probably the place where cultivating a growth mindset will be the most successful.  Helping students to understand that their intelligence is not fixed but rather is plastic, as growth mindsets encourage them to do, can have a dramatic effect on their learning gains.  Doing so within their zone of proximal development could go even further toward assisting them in reaching their maximum potential as learners.

One of the difficulties here, of course, is that these zones are not physical entities.  We cannot see where they start and finish, so there is a great deal of trial and error involved as we try to work within them.  In fact, part of our goal as teachers may be to help students become more aware of their own zones, their own strengths, and their own intellectual boundaries.  Far from discouraging achievement, such metacognitive work can help students to build on areas of expertise.

Vygotsky certainly never intended to suggest that learning had precise limitations; to the contrary, he hoped the zone of proximal development would allow teachers and parents to understand students' vast potential in ways that would allow for more effective education.  Mindset research adds nuance to this foundational work, and I think the two are, ultimately, necessary complements.         


Posted on July 14, 2015 and filed under Learning Research.