Who cares about their zone of proximal development? You should! Find out why knowing your learning zone (zone of proximal development, or ZPD) matters.
CSI, San Diego
“Today you’ll act as crime scene investigators,” the instructor at the Living Coast Discovery Center in San Diego told my students. “Your job is to discover who or what killed the herring.”
Students clustered around a dead herring and listened intently to the instructor.
“Ewww! That’s gross!” one of my students said as she sliced along a herring’s lateral line with a sharp knife. I noticed that her curiosity outweighed her sensibilities, and she kept on cutting.
As the instructor directed the students to make their next cut, and I watched in amazement as each teenager followed directions, eager to discover why the fish had died.
The students poked, prodded, cut, pulled, and sliced. They used chemicals to measure pH levels, and eventually discovered the cause of death—not enough oxygen in the water. Their natural curiosity led them to do things they wouldn’t normally do—dissect a dead fish.
They went out of their comfort zone, because they wanted answers. I thought for sure they would demand gloves for the activity, but they didn’t. Some of them overcame their timidity to ask the instructor (a stranger) questions. My students don’t usually ask questions of people they don’t know.
I walked around as they dissected their herring, snapping photos and talking to them about what they had discovered. Secretly, I wished I had a herring to cut open, too. Even though dead things lie far outside my comfort zone, my curiosity bubbled over.
The instructor had laminated charts with outlines for the fish’s body parts, and placed all of the tools necessary to complete the activity within reach of each group.
Clearly, my students were working within their zone of proximal development. I thought back to my not-so-fun experience in high school biology class.
How to Miss the Learning Zone
On dissection day our teacher plopped a dead cat on the table in front of us.
The wave of formaldehyde from the cat’s cadaver fogged my brain and made my eyes water. (Do they even call dead cats ‘cadavers?’)
“You’re going to dissect this cat. It may take a few days,” the teacher told us. “Tools are over there. Make sure you label stuff.”
“You cut this open!” my lab partner demanded.
“No way!” I exclaimed. “You should do it, your dad’s a doctor.”
It took most of the first dissection period to gather the supplies and decide who would make the first cut. I lost the rock-paper-scissors battle. Cutting into a naked dead cat repulsed me.
I had a cat at home, and I couldn’t stop thinking about who the cadaver had belonged to. Did it live on the streets? Had someone catnapped it and sold it to science? Did loving owners long for their precious pet’s return?
Instead of a week, it took most of the quarter to dissect the cat. To this day, I can’t remember much of what I learned from the process. Only that I hate formaldehyde. And someone else’s cat was pregnant at death.
Whatever the intent of the teacher, we learned little. The hot afternoon sun penetrated the windows and baked the smell of formaldehyde into our pores and clothes. No matter where we went after biology, the scent lingered.
At the end of the quarter, when we had a test over what we’d learned, most of us failed it. “I guess I’ll have to use the highest score as the benchmark and grade everyone from there,” the teacher said with a sad shake of his head.
Clearly, the teacher had missed the zone of proximal development for the class.
So, What IS the Zone of Proximal Development?
Back in the late 20s and early 30s, Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky formulated a theory about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). It states that we learn the fastest when we study something that challenges us but doesn’t overwhelm us. We should need some assistance, but not so much that we get discouraged.
I explain it to my students this way. When I go to the basketball court and try to shoot a free-throw, the ball doesn’t even make it to the backboard. Even if I shoot the ball 100 times, I will not make the basket. I will give up in defeat.
But, if I find a place on the court closer to the basket, I can begin to learn the proper technique from a coach. When I can make 10 out of ten, I can take a few steps back and apply what I’ve learned to try from further away. As I practice each day, I will eventually accomplish a free throw from the free-throw line.
By staying in my Zone of Proximal Development, I challenge
At our school, we apply this theory for math and reading. Instead of students doing the work for their enrolled grade level, they start working in a group of students who share the same level.
Many of our students have fallen through the cracks and read and understand math at 3-6 grade levels below their enrolled grade. With our system, students catch up more quickly, and don’t get frustrated in the process.
Students even know their ZPD for reading and math, and they get excited each time it moves to more difficult material. They take pride in their success, and we cheer them on.
The Link Between NOT Knowing Your ZPD and Illiteracy
I took a class once where the professor told us that most ‘illiterate’ people could actually read at the second or third-grade level. Most books and newspapers have a 6th-8th-grade reading level. Illiterate Americans can read, they just don’t read very well. One report says that 30 million Americans can’t read above the basic proficiency level (2nd or 3rd grade).
Perhaps their teachers and parents didn’t know anything about the Zone of Proximal Development. First through third grade students spend their reading time learning how to read. Once students enter fourth grade, teachers expect them to read to learn.
But what happens if a student hasn’t actually learned to read fluently by the end of third grade? What if the teachers and parents don’t know how to use a child’s ZPD to help him or her improve their reading fluency?
The child falls behind. Perhaps he or she starts to act out in frustration. Maybe the student will get labeled as a ‘troublemaker’ or ‘bad kid’ and struggle for the rest of his or her life.What's the link between illiteracy and ZPD? Find out how to improve your rate of learning.#ZPD #SelfCareSunday #lifelonglearning Click To Tweet
Most likely they missed out on reading practice and used other coping skills to advance to the next grade level. Some reports state that almost 20% of high school graduates can’t read above the basic level.
The Difference Knowing Your ZPD Makes
For the past three
Some kids grumble at first about reading ‘little kid books,’ but as they experience success, they quit complaining and start enjoying the stories. The pictures in the books support the text, and their vocabulary expands. As their vocabulary expands, they experience more success in their subject-area reading assignments.
Our librarian has even set up our library by reading level, and students make book choices based on their current ZPD. This ensures that they’ll successfully pass the reading comprehension quiz over the book.
The more they practice reading, the higher they score on the reading test (as well as standardized pencil and paper tests).
Even if you don’t have a test available to check your Zone of Proximal Development, you can figure it out by gauging your frustration level.
If you want to learn a new skill, or improve an old one, pay attention to where and when you get frustrated. Sometimes, getting into our ZPD means working together with people who have complimentary skills.
Lessons from a Gazebo
I recently helped our sons-in-law and daughter put up one of those Costco special gazebos. The ones that look so simple-to-make as you pass by the display but come in three giant boxes of wood pieces with a 29-page instruction booklet.
Fortunately, one son-in-law has a civil engineering degree, and the other had worked closely with my husband and father the summer before in building a one-car garage. I have a basic knowledge of carpentry.
I learn by doing and looking at the pictures, the civil engineer learns by reading and studying diagrams, and our other son-in-law had practical building experience.
Our combination of skills enabled us to successfully interpret the instructions and build a beautiful gazebo. Any of us could probably assemble the same gazebo on our own at this point. But each of us would have quickly grown discouraged (especially me) if tasked with building the gazebo on our own.
Using Your Zone of Proximal Development to Your Advantage
As adult learners, we have the choice of learning what we want and choosing the environment in which we learn.
Decide what skill you’d like to learn, or what academic branch you want to delve into. Do an inventory of what has held you back from success in the past.
Perhaps you tried to teach yourself how to play the guitar, but failed miserably and gave up on music. Maybe you could take group lessons (not so expensive or intimidating as private lessons).
Or maybe you failed high school Spanish, but really want to learn how to communicate in a different language. Check out the hundreds of free or low-cost smart phone apps. Improve your basic vocabulary on your own, and then sign up for an evening class at your local community college or through the local school district.
A healthy sense of self-awareness helps. Learn what frustrates you, and brainstorm solutions. Try your solutions, and if they work, great. If they don’t work, return to your list.
Just remember that when you don’t learn something, you may be starting at a level that lies outside your ZPD. This leads to frustration, discouragement, and the urge to quit.
The goal of education lies not in acquiring a diploma (although that’s nice), but in learning to learn. Once you learn how you learn best, you’ll experience more success.Ditch frustration and learn in your zone! #ZPD #lifelonglearning #SelfCareSunday Click To Tweet
Have you ever experienced rapid success by working in your learning zone?