Individual Achievement in an Honors Research Community: Teaching Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

Article excerpt

The years leading up to the 1917 Russian October Revolution must have been a dynamic environment for an emerging young intellectual living in Moscow. Eclipsed by such popular Western cultural representations as David Lean's 1965 Academy Award winning film, Dr. Zhivago (based on Pasternak's novel), this milieu included the writers Babel, Gorky, and Nabokov; the poets Mandel'shtam and Tsvetaeva; the composers Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky; the theater director and acting teacher Stanislavsky; and the artists Chagall and Kandinsky (Van Der Veer, 23-4). There we find situated a law student, also studying philosophy, literature, and aesthetics, who went on to become a developmental psychologist--Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), described by a contemporary as possessing "an aura of almost Mozartian giftedness" (Kozulin, xi). However, when only thirty-eight years old, Vygotsky died of tuberculosis, and his work did not become significantly known in the West until the 1960s. Despite this time delay, Vygotsky's book Thought and Language (Myshlenie i rech) and the Vygotsky essay compilation Mind in Society are now established, seminal texts across many Western academic disciplines, including education, linguistics, and psychology.

The focus of this essay is a Vygotsky reading I use in our honors thesis preparation course: the sixth chapter (Part II, Educational Implications) in Mind in Society: The Development of the Higher Psychological Processes: "Interaction between Learning and Development" (79-91). In the 1920s and 30s, on one side of the iron curtain Vygotsky theorized the structure of thought as socially derived while, on the other, Frank Aydelotte developed the first honors program at Swarthmore based on individual achievement (see Rinn, 2003). Yet Vygotsky's work has particular relevance for students embarking on an honors thesis in 2010. The Vygotsky chapter operates on many levels, both curricularly and pedagogically, as a common reading and as an operating principle, and sets the stage for the subsequent individually-oriented reading, writing, and research that students carry out together through the course process.


So prevalent in graduate schools, the "All But Dissertation" (ABD) phenomenon is one we are all familiar with: even though students progress well through their master's and doctoral course work, they flounder when the time comes to carry out independent thesis or dissertation study. Undergraduate students completing their honors thesis requirements also experience difficulty making this shift. Because regular course work provides both structure and a detailed focus within the traditional time boundary of a semester, students generally have had little experience with more boundary-less and self-directed study, research, and writing. As they have done (often successfully) with their course papers and reading assignments, undergraduate honors students also misconstrue the work of the thesis as a product or an event that they can cram into a short period of time.

Given this pedagogical landscape at the University of Southern Maine (uSM), in 1996 I was asked to develop and teach what eventually became a four-credit, required, writing-intensive course--the Honors Thesis Workshop (Honors 311)--to support students through the thesis proposal process. Prior to the development and implementation of this course, the USM Honors Program had a thesis requirement, but only a handful of students completed it. Since we instituted the workshop, the percentage of honors students completing this requirement has grown significantly and remains steady. We are an honors program in the interdisciplinary learning community model, like a small liberal arts academy within our university. As the first of two required sequential courses, both four-credit, which together constitute "the honors thesis" at USM, the Honors Thesis Workshop structures thesis development into a process in order to develop a product: a thoroughly researched and thoughtfully revised thesis proposal. …