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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Two Kids in a Brook and the Zone of Proximal Development

I learned something about learning today.

It’s Sunday and the weather is perfect for a late winter walk.  My wife and I took our two children and rambunctious puppy to Session’s Woods to burn some energy and calories. About a third of the way on the hilly, two and a half mile hike, my daughter had pout on her face and was walking with her arms crossed in front…that’s 9 year-old code for “ask me why I’m mad!”

My wife, the evil and wicked meanie wouldn’t let my daughter climb the slippery rocks on a twenty foot waterfall. The nerve! After we walked a bit, we came to a clearing where the brook meandered through the trees. There was a large rock in the middle of the water. My son ran ahead and was sitting on the rock. When my daughter arrived a minute later she asked him how he got on the rock without falling. He moved back a bit and told her to just jump. I watched as she teetered, crouched and was ready to spring, but ultimately she chickened out. She was afraid of falling, or getting wet, or any number of things. Even though I encouraged her to try it, and explained that the worst thing would be that she gets wet. Nope, she still wouldn’t. Ethan told his sister Samantha he’d show her how to jump, and he did. Without hesitation she mimicked his jump and landed safely on the rock. They played in and on the rocks for nearly half and hour (without getting wet, which is impressive). Samantha immediately had more confidence and was jumping on bigger rocks farther from the bank. She learned by seeing, asking, watching, taking a risk and doing.

These are examples of how psychologist and social constructivist Lev Vygostsky describes learning as it applies to his theory of the zone of proximal development or ZPD. The simple jump and larger “attempt” to overcome an obstacle will have a positive effect on how Samantha tackles new learning. Her brother, or another more experienced peer may not always be there, but when they are-she and other learners are more apt to emulate the task. What if she failed? What if she jumped short and ended up in the five inches of water surrounding the rock?  I would hope she would try it again. It may have taken some encouragement from her brother or me, but eventually the outcome would be the same.

Earlier in the day I observed a dissertation defense by a doctoral candidate. During her presentation, she made an analogy that resonated with me. She explained that learning is similar to people dancing at a party. The first dancers are usually the most skilled and/or confident ones. They know how to dance well and enjoy it. Then there are the reluctant dancers that observe and join the others when a better song comes on, or others have gathered. They like dancing. They just need a bit more time and courage. Finally there are the lurkers or non-participants. These folks may not like dancing because they’ve had a bad experience and feel self-conscious or don’t like the music style, or they have never danced in a formal setting. But they do want to dance. The sit and watch. The lurkers however, do learn how to dance by simply watching. They make mental notes, see what others are doing and if approached, may give it a whirl. The lurkers are known as the peripheral learners.  They do in fact have the capacity to learn and master the skills needed to dance, but it comes at a different pace and on their own terms.

I strongly believe that using these models of learning in the classroom will strengthen students’ capacity to gain new knowledge and take intellectual risks. Children cannot simply sit idly and absorb information. Learning is a dynamic process that is strengthened by the interaction of students on different levels of understanding. Teachers need to dedicate more time toward group work, peer learning and mentors. Using these proven methods of delivery allow children multiple pathways of gaining knowledge. They make sense of it on their terms. I look forward to our next adventure in the woods. See you there!

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