Zones of development, zones of counteraction, and the area of responsibility

General Information

Keywords: learning, upbringing, development, zone of proximal development, support, counteraction, conflict, personality, morality, responsibility

Journal rubric: Developmental Psychology

For citation: Poddyakov A.N. Zones of development, zones of counteraction, and the area of responsibility. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2006. Vol. 2, no. 5 (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

A Part of Article

Most psychological and pedagogical theories proceed from the following idea: it is generally assumed that all people responsible for education (parents, teachers and others) have one common positive goal — to raise the effectiveness of education, to stimulate mental development in children. But there are some important issues that were not discussed at all. Are organisators and participants of the educational process always right minded? Are their goals always positive? Is there a certain type of teaching which slows down development, opposes it? Can education be harmful on purpose, can someone teach ‘bad things’ to children? The article analyses the possible answers to these questions.

We presume that civilizations, societies, social groups, and individuals develop under the influence of two contradictory and interrelated social forces: a) promotion, assistance, stimulation; b) repression, counter  action in gaining experience, learning, and developing. The diversity of goals, strategies, and means of promoting and acting against one’s learning and development in many ways determines the multidimensionality of developmental process.

In this context we discuss different notions introduced by L.S. Vygotsky, C. Benson, J. Valsiner, H. Daniels, A.G. Asmolov and others, that reveal the ambiguity and multidimensionality of developmental outcomes in different social interactions, drawing special attention to the problem of deliberate disorientation in teaching and to the ways of acting against it.

The article reviews two main aspects of disorientation. The first aspect is disorientation in moral and social norms, that is, when one’s disorientation is due to egoistic individual or group interests. This is what people call ‘teaching bad things’. The second, cognitive aspect is the development of a disorientating basis of activity in concrete subjects, and since passing on and acquiring valuable knowledge and skills is highly important (as it affects the results of rivalry), there are various conflicts arising in this area. The article shows the inter  connections (that are sometimes ambiguous) between these aspects, discusses the ethical problems and analyses the cognitive aspects of these problems.

Learning ability, morals, and the problem of ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ students

Totalitarian and inhuman regimes often use children and adolescents as solders and most cruel executioners because of their learning ability (flexibility) which enables them to ‘succeed’ under the amoral, but effective guidance of ‘more competent’ adults (C. Benson). Other examples include teaching children to steal, cheat and so on, but still, all these cases refer to the amoral educational guidance. However, the effectiveness of such group guidance is different for each of its members, and it is necessary to understand why people become top and bottom students. Why some of the group members succeed in learning, while others do not? Why are these ‘educative and nurturing influences’ extremely effective for some people, while others counteract it, passively or actively, and develop in the opposite direction?

The problem of the connection between learning ability and moral responsibility can be solved through the conceptual notions of moral agency and of space of responsibility (the latter introduced by C. Benson). The space of responsibility is determined by our perceptions of what we should do and what we should never do — ‘I cannot think otherwise as long as I am what I am’. Furthermore, some abilities never develop just because a person does not let them develop due to his/her moral reasons — s/he considers it impossible for him/herself to enter certain zones of development even though s/he knows s/he would have succeeded in them if s/he want  ed to.

The article analyses the cases when teachers or stu  dents abandoned education due to their moral reasons.

Cognitive aspect: disorientation in concrete subjects

In modern society that is built upon knowledge, “the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be only sustainable competitive advantage” [Arie de Geus]. But understanding the key role of knowledge may lead one’s competitors not only to raise their own learning ability and educatedness, but also to attempt to reduce other people’s learning ability. Because blocking one’s ability to learn and to acquire new skills is one of the most effective ways of leaving a competitor unable to survive in the changing world. Counteracting one’s learning becomes the ‘dark side’ of teaching along with the ‘Trojan’ education — teaching disadvantageous, dangerous, harmful things to competitors. The article gives several true life examples (common for different social, professional and age groups) of the ‘Trojan’ education and of one’s deliberate counteraction to other people’s learning.

In order to find out whether this counteraction and the ‘Trojan’ education is widely prevalent, we conducted an anonymous inquiry using the questionnaire we had developed. There were 455 Americans and Russians participating in the inquiry. More than 80% of the respondents in all subgroups think that teaching ‘with evil intent’ really exists and takes place in schools and universities. About half of the participants think that there were several incidents in their life when someone interfered with their education from unfriendly motives, or when someone taught them ‘with evil intent’. From 9 to 20% of the respondents in different subgroups (including several professional teachers) taught ‘with evil intent’ themselves. In general, the results obtained in our inquiry show that along with assistance and cooperation, unfair com  petition and the use of education in harmful to someone are quite common in educational practices. The amount of people that gave positive answers to many of our questions indicates that we should not ignore this problem and must consider it psychologically and pedagogically significant.

Disorientation strategies in education: an experiment with ‘devil’s advocate’

In this experiment adult participants were introduced to the problem of competitive activity and were then asked to assist in revealing unfair tricks. The participants were supposed to identify themselves with a person who counteracts other person’s learning and to explicate their ideas and future actions (in other words, the participants were offered a role of ‘devil’s advocate’). Experimentalists taught every participant to use a mathematical formula to predict abstract mathematical variable according to data sets. After being instructed, the participants were asked to imagine that they have to teach this formula to their future competitors, with whom they will have to compete in predictions’ accuracy. The experiment showed that, while playing the role of ‘devil’s advocate’, the participants successfully demonstrated their ability to teach ‘upside down’, that is, to make their competitor’s learning as hard and ineffective as possible, to teach without teaching. The level of this disorienting activity depended on the participant’s competence in the subject (in our case, in mathematics) and on the extent to which the participants identified themselves with the role of teacher competitor.

In another experiment, children aged 5—6 years were offered to choose the content of education for negative and positive characters from a popular cartoon, ‘The Lion King’: for hyenas that hunted small birds, and for the lion that saved these birds. Preschoolers were supposed to decide whether to teach the characters right or wrong bird language; whether to teach them how to climb trees, and so on. In absolute majority children ‘helped’ the positive character to learn something useful and prevent them from learning wrong, bad or useless things. And, on the contrary, children prevented negative characters from learning things that would help them to gain their ‘bad’ aims, and ‘helped’ them to learn wrong and harmful things. This experiment shows that even preschoolers can understand the situations in which one should help or interfere with someone else’s learning, and these decisions depend on one’s moral principles.

Neutralizing ‘Trojan’ education

In order to study the possibility of neutralizing the ‘Trojan’ education, we conducted one more experiment with adult participants. The experiment showed that there are the following ways of resisting one’s counter - action: subjects of educational activity should behave in an active, independent, explorative manner; they must take into account the aims of other participants of educational process; they must critically and consciously assess the educational materials offered to them.


As the civilization develops and new areas and types of activity emerge, not only aims and ways of teaching them to people, but also aims and ways of counteracting this teaching develop. The future of mankind relies on achievements not only in education that stimulates cognitive and personality development, but also in counter - action to education. But psychology is not a neutral observer of human development; it is actively involved in its processes. It not only reveals the universal logic, but creates and constructs the reality along with other agents of civilization development [C. Benson]. And this agent must be, first, moral, and second, competent, so that he could resist aggression, evil, and, eventually, manslaughter. This, indeed, is the area of cultural psychology’s responsibility [A. Poddiakov].

Information About the Authors

Aleksander N. Poddyakov, Doctor of Psychology, Professor, Faculty of Psychology, Department of General and Experimental Psychology, ,, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Member of the International Society for Studies of Behaviour Development (ISSBD), Moscow, Russia, ORCID:, e-mail:



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