Vygotsky, Piaget and YouTube

The world is changing, and it's largely due to the proliferation of new technology. Learning in particular is being democratised because of technology. Where once, experts had a monopoly on knowledge and expertise, now anyone it seems can access content that will teach them via the social web. This is known as autodidacticism - teaching yourself.

And yet according to one very respected psychologist - Lev Vygotsky - learning on your own is not as powerful or extensive as learning alongside a 'knowledgeable other' person. According to his Zone of Proximal Development theory (ZPD), whether that person be a teacher, peer or parent, children learn more extensively within a social context. The same can be applied to adults, who can build on their existing knowledge through interaction with others.

ZPD theory ran counter to other developmental theories of the time. Jean Piaget, for example, famously claimed that children were solo-scientists, exploring the world and constructing meaning for themselves. They would need to progress through a strictly defined set of cognitive stages before they were ready to learn at the next level, he said. Vygotsky's tack on learning was invariably laced with rich social contexts, and laden with cultural nuances, and he didn't hold to the stage development theory as strictly as Piaget. Vygotsky also subscribed to the notion that we construct our own meaning, but what you can learn on your own, he believed, was limited when compared to what you could learn with someone else in close proximity, supporting and encouraging you. Jerome Bruner took this notion a little further and talked about the scaffolding of learners - proving close support for them as they developed their skills, knowledge and expertise, and then, when they became more independent, the scaffolding could be faded and eventually removed.

Today, the bold claim is that anyone can learn anything they wish, because social media channels can provide that scaffolding. Choose any subject, whether it be baking a sponge cake, playing blues guitar, or animal husbandry, and you will find dozens of YouTube videos that will teach you. The content is out there. All you need to do is provide the commitment for hours of practice and application. In Vygotskiian terms, the knowledgeable other (the social context) is replaced by the technology. Behind the technology he would argue, are the experts. They create the content and present it to you on YouTube, and the ZPD is still there. In effect, the technology is now mediating the social interaction between learner and knowledgeable other person. In Piagetian terms it could be argued that in fact the learner is still a solo explorer, discovering for himself that he can indeed, with a lot of practice and a great deal of trial and error, eventually bake the perfect sponge cake, emulate Eric Clapton's finest blues riffs, or run a sheep farm in the hills of Cumbria.

For Vygotsky, the technology is the ZPD - mediating the social. Behind the video is the social support, the scaffolding. For Piaget, the technology is simply another tool that enables self discovery. The learner is still a solo explorer, discovering for themselves through trial and error, what is possible.

Which is the correct perspective? It's open to discussion, but whatever way we look at it, tools such as YouTube are opening up unprecedented and very rich learning opportunities for anyone who has access to the Web. Informal learning will never be the same again.

Photo by Anne Roberts

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Vygotsky, Piaget and YouTube by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Stephen curley said…
Last week I had to 'learn' how to tie up a bow tie for a ball. Attempting to follow written instructions lead to frustration and failure. A simple youtube clip saw the objective of having a completed bow tie met. However, did learning occur? I can not tell you now how to tie the bow tie or complete that objective now... if I had a person teaching me, that knows my meeds and ways of remembering things for future- I might be able to.
Donald Clark said…
I am no fun of either Paiget (http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=Piaget) or Vygotsky (http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=Vygotsky) but am often puzzled by people who sanctify Sugata Mitra's work (which I also regard as fraudumnet) while at the same time call themselves social constructivists.
Steve Wheeler said…
I would relish the opportunity to get you and Sugata together for a public debate Don. If whoever pulls it off is looking for a moderator, I'm in!
Steve Wheeler said…
Interesting observation Stephen. Thanks for posting.
Anonymous said…
Steve, I’ve a few comments to make on your post ….

Although, the key question of your post is on what role technology and social media play – that of scaffolding or that of the knowledgeable other or that of a tool that enables self-discovery – I’d first rather ponder over the question, whether only one of the 3 approaches highlighted in your post would work for any given learning environment or even a learner? I know that a specific learner will be tilted towards a specific learning approach, but would she use (or even benefit from) only that one approach?

So, if I am a learner who tends to learn by self, would I always use only this approach or would there not be times, when I’d need to have a knowledgeable other to guide me through my learning? What perhaps I’d end up doing is to use the knowledgeable other only to discover something new and further trigger my own self-learning process because I am more comfortable with that approach (vis-à-vis a learner who learns best in the proximity of the knowledgeable other) . So, the first point that I am making here is that there perhaps is no “one” way of learning, even when we are talking about “one” learner with “one” learning preference. And this is one of the principles of the connectivism theory, which states that learning happens in many different ways.

And therefore, as a learning designer, I try not to design only a course, but I try to provide the learners with a “learning environment” instead – in this environment, I make available an array of learning assets/entities of different types (including human and non-human assets), and allow learners to find their way own through these assets and connect the dots to make sense of them.

This entire set of assets (including technology assets such as a youtube videos) play interchangeable roles— that of scaffolding, the knowledgeable others, and tools to trigger self-discovery. So, there may not be one correct perspective here, in my opinion.

And I agree with you that informal learning will never be the same again …. If you recall, in your session on “Disruption” at the learning technologies show in Jan, I mentioned that there is still a linearity in the way we learn (and I am talking about our education system here), but the digital era brings with it multiple dimensions and there won’t ever be one correct perspective for the millennium learner, I think.

Anonymous said…
I like this article,and I like the conversation even more ,I'm not an expert so may be I'm not entitled to comment ,but I agree that informal learning will never be the same ,and that there are several ways of learning even for the same person to discover through the learning process.Meanwhile,You can get the benefit of a personal tutor who knows your needs and helps you to remember better . through further contact with the source that most media channels allow .I'm not saying that technology will replace teachers, hopefully not as I'm one myself,
Good points, but one missing item: the multitude of information on the web. Sure we can find the topics to study, but how do we glean through the millions of options online to those that are the essential, wise, experience-based, and credible. Learning to evaluate/search for credibility is a key 21st century skills missing from many of these discussions and educational programs. That is why having a mentor/expert/guide/teacher can never be replaced - they know how to sort through the options online to bring us the best, and can answer questions about it that help expand our learning in a meaningful way.
Anonymous said…
This is an interesting perspective, but I do not think it is pertinent in early education where the physical, concrete world, especially relationships, form the foundation for learning. I think there is some convergence between the ZPD and the stages that Piaget proposes. Until a child reaches a developmental level, in my opinion, the virtual world may do more harm than good. Reality first with strong relationships and lots of opportunity with hands-on materials and opportunities manipulate objects are crucial.
Amany Fawzy said…
I clicked anonymous by mistake ,anyway this is me
Steve Wheeler said…
I take on board your comments Michelle, but don't forget that many of us now have Personal Learning Networks - people who often do our filtering for us and others who are remote yet still advise us. Digital literacies and skills are very important, as you point out, but we are now act as arbiters of good content, so the ZPD is extended rather than limited through technology.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Amany. Nice to put a name to the comment ;)
Bronwyn hegarty said…
in practice isn't the knowledgeable expert in the ZPD able to engage the learner in dialogue to aid reflection on what is being learned?

I don't see how current technology can do this in any effective way as yet. Synchronous technologies yes but not the bulk of student online interactions which appear to be with content and not with a real live facilitator.

Sure online quizzes can speak back with robotic-like feedback, but is it as valuable as human feedback? Sure a learner can look at a Youtube video and have their thinking influenced by what they see - and I guess the day may come when the actors can gaze into the minds of the viewers and speak to them. That is when I head for the hills. :)
Bronwyn hegarty said…
A great example of how technology can provide expert guidance and so much better to have it from several mentors or facilitators than just one. The way I initially read your article was from the perspective that technology such as youtube videos and online material could provide the learning - when the interactions that social media networks are taken into account it makes much more sense. For example, the peer assist model is invaluable when mediated by technology.
Steve Wheeler said…
I firmly believe that all learning needs can be catered for and all learners supported, Preeti. We have so may tools and technologies available now, they suit just about anyone's requirements, and that leads to them also being used in a multitude of different ways. As McLuhan said - we shape our tools and then they shape us - hopefully for the better, whether that is linearly, multidirectionally, or even rhizomatically.
Steve Wheeler said…
Some useful points Bronwyn - thanks. With my own learners, I encourage them to discuss their learning with each other outside the boundaries of the classroom, and they do this, either through collaborative work and projects or via shared online spaces such as Facebook. I would see video resources such as YouTube videos as a trigger event to set trains of thought going, and then a multi-layered process of learning takes places, including interaction with peers, myself and others.
Nigel Rayment said…
Steve, the process you describe in your reply to Bronwyn doesn't seem very distinct from the way students work together following a traditional seminar or after reading written stimuli. I agree with you that YouTube videos are a fabulous trigger. I also believe that technology will constantly refresh approaches to informal (and formal) learning, but Bronwyn is spot on in my view in emphasising the critical part played by dialogue and reflection.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Nigel, I'm not disagreeing that dialogue is a key facet of learning, and often promotes reflection - what is in question here is whether dialogue can be effectively moderated through the technology when a) there is no-one but the learner present and b) the social presence of the knowledgable other is tacit at best in the content. What are your views on that proposition?
I agree about the usefulness of PLNS, but even there the conversations, threads, and amount of information can be overwhelming and unfocused, and often contractors and/or vendors sneak in and complicated it further. I have found that sometimes a one-on-one discussion with a true expert on a given topic in the field for, say, just one hour will offer me the equivalent of weeks and weeks of PLN interaction. Just my own experience.
Joseph Gliddon said…
There is a lot of thought packed into your post, but I am going to try to give my answer to your question.
First the learner and learning, I would argue that the scaffolding idea is supported by the fact that learner can learn faster with an appropriate teacher and are able to do tasks with help that they would struggle with alone (zone of proximal development). People can (and do) learn alone but it is faster with appropriate help.
This is where technology comes in, it is possible for humans to store their thoughts and explanations using technology (for example in books), each technology making this easier (for those that are interested I talked a lot about how technology is “force multiplier/cost reducer/storage” on my blog
http://morethanjustcontent.wordpress.com/?s=force+multiplier )

To use the lovely bow tie example from earlier, you could work it out yourself, you could read instructions (that a “teacher” wrote), you could watch a video of someone explaining it, you could ask your personal learning network(PLN - expect a tweet with a link to a vid), you could get a physically present person to show you.
All of these would work, technology has just reduced the cost of finding that stored explanation.

Its when the learning gets a little more abstract, that technology looks more like being the teacher. Here is a blog post “What does my learning look like” that I wrote for a mooc that gives a nice example of this kind of learning and my thoughts on how it works. For this kind of learning you are constructing your own teacher from a variety of sources (the web, videos, articles, things your PLN suggest, discussions and comments from your PLN)

So is the technology the expert teacher - No
Are you constructing your own knowledge using the internet as a tool - No

You are using the internet as a tool to construct your own expert teacher!
(I like the phrase but now I have a horrible picture in my head of some kind of Frankensteinian Cyborg writing on a traditional blackboard)
Joseph Gliddon said…
Ah 2 extra things
First I hadnt noticed that links dont work in the comments so here is my "What Does my learning look like" http://wp.me/1gWAk
Second reading over my last post I see that it might look like I was saying you no longer need teachers, this is not the case - we still need teachers and they will still need to do all the things they did for their students in fact they will have a new thing to teach their students along with everything else, how to construct your own personal learning environment
Tom said…
Something for ALT-C?
Tom said…
Or, as Plato put it:

Plato on Writing

Socrates [to Phaedrus]: ... The story is that in the region of Naucratis in Egypt there dwelt one of the old gods of the country, the god to whom the bird called Ibis is sacred, his own name being Theuth. He it was that invented number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing. Now the king of the whole country at that time was Thamus, who dwelt in the great city of Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes, while Thamus they call Ammon. To him came Theuth, and revealed his arts, saying that they ought to be passed on to the Egyptians in general. Thamus asked what was the use of them all, and when Theuth explained, he condemned what he thought the bad points and praised what he thought the good. On each art, we are told, Thamus had plenty of views both for and against; it would take too long to give them in detail. But when it came to writing Theuth said, 'Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.' But the king answered and said, 'O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reasons of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.'

Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.E), "Phaedrus" (c. 360 B.C.E.), 274c-275 b, R(eginald) Hackforth, transl., 1952.

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