Saturday, March 2, 2013

Critical Thinking in Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

This article discusses the experiences of students who are learning to think critically. The study followed twenty‐six zoology undergraduates over three years at their university in New Zealand. Vygotsky’s developmental model of the Zone of Proximal Development provided the framework for how they studied the development of their critical thinking.

There was very little evidence of critical thinking in the first year when the students had access to course documents, textbooks, problem solving‐exercises and discussions that were focused on factual knowledge. In large classes students were anonymous to the professors and therefore relied on each other for support. In the second and third years, learning to do research became the main structure of critical thinking and students changed their views about the nature of knowledge. Verbal conversation with professors and other students allowed students to extend their Zone Proximal Development for critical thinking. They began to accept responsibility for their own and their peers’ learning as they practiced being a zoology researcher.

This study suggests that research should be an integral part of the first year so critical thinking in higher education can be developed more extensively. As a college student who has participated in college lecture classes and done multiple research papers, I found this study relatable and intriguing. I am an Art History minor, and as a freshman and sophomore, the research papers I did were mainly comparisons of two artworks. Although these classes were interesting, they simply focused on facts such as dates, artist names, and characteristics of each style. But in my graduate level classes, the professors focused on the history and development of the artwork, and what aspects of life in that time period influenced and became reflected in the artwork. I had to do research papers about a topic I came up with and do extensive research to find support for my thesis. I researched not only the artwork but history, customs, religion, and politics of the time period. It really changed the way I had to think about the artwork and how to approach the research paper. Instead of simply stating what I observed (as I had done freshman and sophomore year), I had to apply critical thinking and create connections to other subjects, and this only created a greater understanding of the topic for me.

In my opinion and experience, it is very useful to incorporate research into a college student's curriculum. Research allows students to cultivate a greater understanding of the subject they are researching because they are not being given the information, but instead seeking it out themselves. Challenging them to apply critical thinking only helps them to develop it, and critical thinking is one of the most valuable skills a student should leave college with.

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