Today I’m going to share one of those simple but foundational teaching ideas. It’s called The Zone of Proximal Development. It is Vygotsky’s concept that basically says that there are things a learner can do on his own, things he can learn to do with help, and things he cannot do yet!
For example, I started learning how to drive when I was in high school. I wanted to be a good driver. I took lessons, my parents gave me tips, and I learned pretty quickly. However, there was one thing that I couldn’t get quite right: parallel parking. Mine was the car going back and forth, inching in by increments, hitting the sidewalk again and again. It was pretty frustrating, and especially embarrassing if I had any audience to witness my incompetence. It wasn’t until a friend sat in my car and gave me the crucial tip to wait until the side-view mirror lined up just so with the parked car in front, that I finally figured it out. He got in the driver’s seat and showed me, and then he then sat in the passenger’s seat and coached me while I tried again. Soon, with his help, I was
a parallel parking pro a lot better at it.
I was in the zone of proximal development for parallel parking. There was a good amount of driving technique I had down, but I needed some coaching to get parallel parking down. A friend was there, he saw what I was doing, knew how to fix it, and showed me the way.
That’s it, really. As a teacher, your job is to know the things your student can already do on her own and then help her to take the next step and learn something new.
The great difficulty
Oh wait, did I say student, as in singular? I mean, your 33 students. And were we talking about one subject, like reading? Or… 10 subjects, like reading, writing, spelling, math, social studies, science, technology, PE, social skills, and ELD (formerly known as ESL)? (Nevermind art and music…)
You see where I’m going. It’s one thing for one person to coach another person and help scaffold the learning process in one subject, like a piano teacher teaching a child piano. But it’s another thing for one person to teach 30+ people effectively in several subjects, like an elementary school teacher in a public school classroom.
It’s easy to say, “Know your students really well, and help them get to the next level,” but when you factor in the number of students and the number of subjects you have to know them in, it’s clear that one teacher cannot do it all. This is why your child comes home with math homework that he doesn’t know how to do, or why your advanced learner complains that school is boring. Ideally, a teacher would be able to pinpoint each students’ ZPD in every subject and teach them all in that place, but it doesn’t always happen.
We try. We really do. I always did, but I know I wasn’t always successful.
One of the greatest difficulties with schooling is that children are expected to move forward whether or not they have mastered a previous concept. I recently went to a talk by Salman Khan (of The Khan Academy) where he likened the teaching process to building a house. Imagine if you hired a contractor and gave him three weeks to lay the foundation. At the end of three weeks, he says he’s not quite done– he needs more time to finish. Since you’re on a schedule, you decide to move forward without finishing it. (Bad idea, right?) You hire a new contractor to build the first level upon this incomplete foundation, again with a 3-week deadline. The same thing happens– at the end of three weeks, it’s not done. He asks for more time, because he wants to do a good job, but you opt to move forward instead of letting him finish the job. You get yet another contractor to start the second level on top of the incomplete foundation and wobbly first level.
This is a total paraphrase of what he said, but the general idea is there: THIS IS A BAD IDEA! You need to lay a solid foundation, or the whole house is going to be shaky! It’s more important to spend the time investing in solid foundations than it is to rush forward to meet deadlines. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much how the school years go. Teachers are given a class, a bunch of standards, and a deadline. The students are almost always moved on to the next grade and the next teacher, whether or not they have mastered the previous concepts.
This is a problem. A bigger one than I know how to fix. But I do have some suggestions for how you can address it with your own child at home.
How can I apply this to my child at home?
If your child is coming home with 2-digit times 2-digit multiplication problems (e.g. 38 x 17) and is completely flustered, you shouldn’t just keep showing them the same algorithm again and again and again and again, hoping that eventually it will just click. If they haven’t mastered more foundational concepts first, then they won’t really have a good understanding of this one no matter how many times you try to show it to them.
Instead of trying to force this procedure on them, find their zone of proximal development. Determine what they do already know well, and then work from there until you reach the zone where they can successfully master a new concept with your help. Maybe that means going as far back as reviewing addition, and saying, “So I know you get what 4 + 4 means, right? You’re adding four twice. What about 4 + 4 + 4? Yes, you are adding four three times. Well, multiplication is basically a shortcut for addition! When you do 4 x 2, you are just adding 4 with itself twice. When you do 4 x 3, you are just adding 4 with itself three times: 4 + 4 + 4 = 4 x 3.” Use visuals, starting with what they already know, and then take them to the next step.
Once they master this concept, then build on it and move on to the next one. The key word here is building. You are building upon other concepts, so if those foundational concepts are shaky, a lot of concepts to follow will also be shaky. Go back and master the more basic concepts before building on top of them.
Too often, we start from where we think they should be, and keep plodding forward. If your child doesn’t have the basic concepts down, though, the new material will not be learned well. Whatever the subject is, always start by knowing what your child has actually mastered and build on that.