Victoria Jane Minson

Monash University – Australia

Thesis: Rethinking child development assessments; applying the Zone of Proximal Development as an analytical tool in the assessment of children’s development.

Research supervisor: Dr Nikolai Veresov and Dr Marie Hammer

I am a first year Early Childhood Education PhD student at Monash University, under the supervision of Dr Nikolai Veresov and Dr Marie Hammer. My research focuses on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as a key analytical concept. I am interested in developing a tool that encompasses the principles of the ZPD. I will aim to uncover the developmental process that transpires in children’s development. This tool will be particularly relevant in early childhood education, and health contexts to assess children’s development. In order to correctly apply the ZPD concept it is essential to situate it in a cultural-historical perspective of development. I believe that the ISCAR SU would provide excellent guidance to help me further develop my understanding of the ZPD and development as social cultural genesis. The ISCAR SU would be an ideal opportunity to explore the authentic foundations of cultural-historical theory in the research of early childhood education and development. For these reasons I can see my project as an ideal fit for the summer school, and I am therefore writing to express my interest and I am submitting my resume and abstract for consideration.

Research problem
There is a problem with the methodology that surrounds the assessment of children’s development in early childhood education. Leading health and educational developmental assessments tools do not generally capture the full scope of children’s development, and can be misrepresentative of the child’s actual level of development. The Institute of Child Health at the University College of London conducted an investigation that reviewed the range of tools that were being used to measure children’s developmental progress at age 2 ½ years (Bedford, Walton, Ahn, 2013). The method of this investigation used a systematic review to search literature that cited ‘measures of children’s development’. Thirty-five measurement tools were identified however; only thirteen tools meet the selection criteria in covering all developmental domains required (Bedford, Walton, Ahn, 2013). From a cultural-historical perspective it is concerning to think that developmental measurement tools that do not cover all developmental domains are in current use.

Positioning the research
Assessing children’s development embraces a holistic approach, however the actual nature of what is being assessed is driven from maturational understanding of development. A maturational understanding of child development has a dominating presence in the ongoing debate of the appropriateness of child development measures (Tinajero & Loizillon, 2010). This strong maturational presence is highlighted by the focus being on ‘levels’ in the assessment of children’s development, in both education and health institutions. Vygotsky’s work on the problem of age identified an issue with these practices and offered an alternative suggestion, “we must reject attempts of symptomatic classification of age levels and move on, as other sciences have done in their time, to classification based on the internal essence of the process being studied” (Vygotsky, 1987 p.189). Vygotsky’s statement focuses on this study’s research intent, which proposes a new way to think about assessing children’s development. By moving away from developmental assessments that use a ‘symptomatic classification of age levels’, and towards studying the ‘process’ of development to increase the validity and vigour of developmental assessment tools.

Child development is such a complex process that cannot be determined according to one trait alone at any stage (Vygotsky, 1987). Taking a critical perspective on this matter, what is the purpose of assessing the level of development? As well as what does this actually tell us about the process or potential of each child’s developmental abilities? To assume that the child’s level of existing development can indicate a developmental trajectory is incorrect, as when measuring a level, we are measuring an end point. Once this end point is arrived at, we have missed all sensitive periods and opportunities to extend development, through the ZPD (Vygotsky, 1987).

The age and stage approach to development has encumbered societal norms for the way we expect children’s development to progress. The problem of focusing on the existing dispositions of development means that the internal process behind the attainment of skills is difficult to be fully understood or accounted for. In theory, the internal essence of things and the external form of their manifestation do not always coincide ” If the form of manifestation and the essence of things coincided directly, then all science would be superfluous ” (Marx & Engels as cited in Vygotsky, 1987 p.198).

Vygotsky’s legacy has enriched the pedagogical sphere of the early childhood educational community, making a significant contribution to the cultural-historical understanding of children’s development. Although the ZPD is not a main or central concept in Vygotsky’s theory of child development (Chaiklin, 2003), this concept does however, align with the intent of this research by focusing on the process of development; pointing to an important place and moment in the process of child development (Chaiklin, 2003, p. 45). In the far-reaching and widespread use of the ZPD concept, shortenings and simplifications have developed and its theoretical perspective has been stripped (Veresov, 2010, p.287). As Palinscar (1998, p.370) suggests in the context of teaching and learning the ZPD is, “probably one of the most used and least understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literature”. The ZPD concept is being used out of the context of a cultural-historical understanding of development. Before we can understand the ZPD we must first understand what Vygotsky means by development itself (Chaiklin, 2000).

Attending the ISCAR SU would be an invaluable opportunity for me to further develop my knowledge from world-class scholars in the field. The planned activities, focus groups and interactions with other like-minded emerging researchers is a very exciting prospect; which would come at an ideal time as I begin to develop my methodology section.

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