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Sprinting in the zone of proximal development

According to Lev Vygotsky, fulfilling the potential of one´s learning can be supported by more competent peers. The 3UAS course Digital Wellbeing Sprint is all about that.


Teemu Ruohonen

lehtori, digitaaliset palvelut
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 17.08.2023

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Soviet psychologist, who became famous for his work on psychological development and the creation of socio-cultural theory. I got to know Vygotsky´s work years ago as part of my Master thesis, in my studies on children´s learning at primary school.

According to Vygotsky´s theory learning happens especially in social interactions, affected by culture and language (Vygotsky 1978). Cognitive capabilities are developed in certain contexts using language as a thinking tool; first as an interpersonal process between people, then as an intrapersonal one with emerging inner speech of a person.

Socio-cultural theory also includes the idea, that one´s learning will be optimal, when it takes place in the so-called zone of proximal development (ZPD). According to Vygotsky, ZPD is an area between the capabilities a learner can master by oneself, and the potential achieved by means of a more competent person. The teacher´s role is to offer progressive support to lead the learner through ZPD. That support is called scaffolding (however, the term was not invented by Vygotsky himself).

One way of applying scaffolding is to work with more competent peers. The idea is that an expert may be “too far” from the development stage of a novice to give optimal support compared to an amateur who already masters a task. It´s about the distance of minds.

The Digital Wellbeing Sprint brings a reminder of Vygotsky

Even though Vygotsky focused on the cognitive development of children, his work can be applied on the way adults work and learn together as well. This comes to my mind annually while working with the 3UAS Digital Wellbeing Sprint. Most recently in the spring 2023.

The Digital Wellbeing Sprint is an intensive course, where students from various backgrounds work together in order to innovate digital solutions to real-life challenges provided by health and wellbeing organisations. The sprint is executed in 7 days applying the method developed on Google Ventures. Everyone who has joined a design sprint knows the pain and joy of working intensively on a challenge for a short and set time.

However, the sprint method is not what triggers me to remember Vygotsky. It is the concept of facilitating the sprint.

Scaffolding at the sprint

In addition to the participants, there are tutors taking part in the sprint. They are master-level students from Haaga-Helia, Laurea and Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, who are in charge of facilitating the process and the work of the sprint teams. With the support of the project manager and the teacher team the tutors guide participants through the week.

It´s interesting to make notions on Vygotsky’s theory coming alive during the sprint, and to see how learning occurs and how it is supported. In addition to observations during the sprint it is rewarding to read the students’ learning diaries afterwards.

It is great to see and hear the satisfaction of the participants. Especially the support of the tutors is experienced as valuable. I can confirm, that every year we have plenty of clear instructions, active inclusion and time with participants, all carried out by the tutors. They seem to know what the participants need as they have the mind of a student. Perhaps even something teachers are missing.

However, it is not only about the participants learning. Tutors learn too.

Design thinking is not a new thing for master students any more. However, even though tutors have done design projects, very few have had the opportunity to facilitate them. Until now. It seems to lead to new insights for them, too.

It is valuable to experience a process from different angles and roles. If you have read it, then take it into action. If you have done it, help someone else to do it. Also, it is crucial to consider the dynamics of a team. Design rarely moves ahead in a linear way, and a group of people never does. It is about getting different kinds of people involved, to interact and to work in the same direction. Tutoring forces the tutors to deepen their knowledge and skills.

Here I see valuable learning happening. And something work life is really made of.

Learning has a tendency to happen

I received evidence on Vygotsky´s theory in action years ago in my thesis, both in tutors and those being tutored. The Digital Wellbeing Sprint has certainly showed me more. Even though we have not steered tutors to the edge of theory, it seems to have an inherent tendency to become true.

I strongly believe it is the scaffolding that has a remarkable impact on how the sprint works, taking learners to the ZPD, and offering unique learning experiences to everybody. Just the way it happens when natural born learners, children, get together to develop themselves.

Vygotsky, see you next spring again!

PS. Interested in joining the Digital Wellbeing Sprint 2024 as bachelor or master student, or organisation? Visit our website for more information.

References and classic reading

Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society. The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press.