Vygotsky, Physical Education and Social Interaction

By Ussher, Bill; Gibbes, Chris | Journal of Physical Education New Zealand, July 2002 | Go to article overview
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Vygotsky, Physical Education and Social Interaction

Ussher, Bill, Gibbes, Chris, Journal of Physical Education New Zealand


The notion of student-centred learning is embedded within the Health and Physical Education in the New Zealand Curriculum statement (Ministry of Education, 1999). Turning this notion into practice, however, requires teachers to be aware of relevant theories of learning. One theory that supports the principles of student-centred learning is provided by Vygotsky, whose work is in the field of literacy learning, provides the theory that supports the principles of studentcentred learning. In this article we consider the general principles of Vygotsky's learning theory, and their possible application to physical education. We then explore the role of, and implications for, the physical education teacher in using Vygotsky's work to underpin several appropriate teaching models that are commonly used in New Zealand secondary schools. We conclude by affirming the usefulness of combining the learning theory and the teaching models, and assert that teachers must be constantly responsive to such 'new' understandings in teaching and learning if they are to enrich students' experiences in physical education.


Knowledge is a cultural artefact, in that we produce it, share it, and transform it as individuals and as groups. The sites of this knowledge activity include family and wider whanau groups, schools and classrooms, and other social settings such as sport and recreation. The knowledge created through social interactions at these sites forms the basis of our culture, and as Andrews and Lupart (1993) suggest `culture and the intellectual tools it produces [are] the primary elements that shape and make possible advanced cognitive development in the individual' (pp. 108109). Vygotsky based his work on the importance of these socio-cultural dimensions, and of language, as `important characteristics of formal schooling and learning' (McInerney and McInerney, 1994; p.73). Vygotsky theorised about learning and in particular he `sought to integrate historical and psychological processes into a united theory of human consciousness' (Andrews and Lupart; 1993; p.103).

Vygotsky's developmental theory is co-constructivist, since students construct meaning through the social interactions, language and culture of their total learning environment, with the teacher and significant others assuming cooperative roles in guiding the learning experiences. Vygotsky places the teacher in a more functional role than did Piaget, recognising the importance of the teacher and student forming positive relationships. These views clearly relate to the notion of student-centred learning, and provide a framework that prompts the physical education teacher to think beyond traditional teaching styles and methods, and to provide relevant and meaningful contexts for student experiences.

In this article we first discuss Vygotsky's conceptual framework, then consider appropriate models and strategies currently available that might lend themselves to implementing his learning theory in a physical education context, and, finally, explore implications for teachers of physical education. We emphasise that teachers must be constantly responsive to new understandings in teaching and learning if they are to apply such principles effectively to programmes in a specific curriculum content area, such as physical education.

Conceptual framework

There are five underlying concepts of Vygotsky's work that permeate his writing and theorising: higher mental functioning; the role of language; mediation; cultural influences, and the zone of proximal development.

Higher mental functioning

McInerney and McInerney (1994) uphold that a `central theme in Vygotsky's theory is that cognitive development can be understood as the transformation of basic, biologically determined processes into higher psychological functions' (p.99), such as the internalising of visual experiences. There are two levels of this higher mental functioning.

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