Instructional Science

, Volume 45, Issue 1, pp 5–24 | Cite as

Observing complex systems thinking in the zone of proximal development

  • Joshua Danish
  • Asmalina Saleh
  • Alejandro Andrade
  • Branden Bryan


Our paper builds on the construct of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Vygotsky in Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978) to analyze the relationship between students’ answers and the help they receive as they construct them. We report on a secondary analysis of classroom and interview data that was collected with 1st and 2nd grade students completing a short scaffolded inquiry project designed to help them learn about how honeybees collect nectar. We explore how the progression of questions reveal students’ understanding of complex systems by examining how students’ progression through the questions tended to become more sophisticated as we increased support. We further compare two complex-systems perspectives, Component-Mechanism-Phenomena and agent-based approaches, to see how each would categorize students’ explanations. Findings demonstrate the value of the ZPD as an analytic framework in exploring students’ systems understanding in terms of the nature of questions (e.g., sequencing, type of question) and multiple conceptual models (e.g., component-mechanisms-phenomenon, single agent or aggregate behaviors), and how this might impact students’ groupings according to their ability and subsequent instructional support.


Zone of proximal development Complex systems Early elementary Student performance 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  2. 2.Cognitive Science ProgramIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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