As I thought more about what I wrote in Learning to Teach; Learning to Learn: Part I, I started thinking about ZPD and the role it plays, directly and indirectly, in the way we think about how we approach teaching and sometimes how we think about student learning.
You can find plenty of resources explaining and discussing ZPD, which is based on the work of the educational theorist, psychologist, and constructivist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). The importance of ZPD is particularly prevalent in early childhood though it resonates in any grade, really, or any experience in learning, I think. The substance of the zone of proximal development is evident in the image in that it is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what the learner can't yet do. Learning, then, is what has already happened so that the learner can do it and what needs to happen so the learner can do something else and/or build on whatever has already been learned.
I'm not going to talk about methods of teaching because that gets too complex. However, we all know, through our experience or that of students we know or your own children, that many teachers have a preferred way of teaching something. That's not necessarily good or bad. Some of us have experienced being told we were doing something "wrong" because it was a process, method, approach, or something that wasn't familiar to the teacher or with which the teacher wasn't comfortable. I have tutored students to do what the teacher asks because that will protect their grade. Picking a battle with a teacher, especially indirectly, rarely ends well for the student. That, by the way, is a different type of learning.
Somewhere here we have to talk about the difference between learning a skill and learning something that's not a skill. Riding a bicycle is a typical example of learning a skill. Or knowing how to chop an onion or chiffonade. There's a fabulous scene in Julie and Julia in which Julia Childs practices chopping an onion. The chef shows her the fundamentals and she goes home to practice and then practice some more.
That might remind you of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule from his book Outliers. The premise was soon debunked by a number of individuals and organizations, though no one denied that practice is necessary to develop proficiency and even more practice is needed to attain some level of mastery. That is confirmed by any number of professional musicians, athletes, chefs, artists, and any others who revisit fundamentals and practice to retain the efficacy of their skills.
But they will also tell you they are open to learning new ways of doing, as appropriate. Your hair stylist takes classes, chefs learn from each other, artists of all kinds explore with a new medium or structure, etc.
Even though they have achieved a level of mastery, they continue to learn and it occurs to me that though they are enhancing their skills, they continue to build on other learning that informs how they are able or want to use their skills.
Let's shift now to thinking about what we typically think about when we think about learning and that's how we strive to help students get from those amazing blank canvases to works of art.
four stages of competence in the 70s, though the site, as you'll see below and by following the link, refers to levels of skill rather than competence.
- Unconsciously unskilled. We don't know what we don't know; we are inept and don't know it.
- Consciously unskilled. We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when we realize how poorly we are able to do something and we figure out how much we need to learn.
- Consciously skilled. We know how to do the skill but also realize we need to continue to practice.
- Unconsciously skilled. We continue to practice and hone the skill to the point the skill is easier, perhaps even natural.
You can disagree with that or not. The point is there are stages of capability. I don't know what I don't know and that might evolve to my being able to do something without really thinking about it when I develop skill or competence, or maybe even both.
I can think of many examples for myself. One is playing golf. I was mildly interested in learning how to play golf because some of my friends played. I even signed up for lessons. The lessons affirmed that I was indeed inept and that was followed by the realization of how little I really wanted to learn how to play golf. I was and am happy to remain consciously incompetent or unskilled in golf. The playing of golf will never be on the canvas of who I am and what I do.
But there is a different example that haunts me. It's of a second grader who was trying to complete some multidigit addition problems on a worksheet. I sat down with her and asked her to explain what she was doing. She tried to; she really did. And then she threw down her pencil with frustration and said that she didn't know how to do it, and then she said she was stupid. All around her other students were trying to complete the same worksheet while the teacher was working with a small group of students. I glanced around the room and it was clear to me that some other students were equally frustrated and some were not. But what I said to her was that no one expected to know this stuff already; that the purpose of being in school was to learn. The look on her face indicated that she did not believe me, or that her understanding of learning was terribly skewed. I really think it was both.
I sat with her and quietly coached her on what I hoped would be an acceptable way to do her math. I say that because I know I had coached some 4th graders in a different school district in a way that wasn't the way the teacher needed them to learn something, so I'd been wary ever since then about helping with math. Anyway, we got through a couple of problems together and then she worked a couple on her own. Other students had crowded in to overhear what I was saying and were working on their own worksheets. A couple asked me for some additional help.
In my conversation with the teacher after class, first, she thanked me for helping. Then she said that part of the problem for her was the pacing guide and that she always felt compelled to move on when students weren't ready or get in trouble; however, she also knew that rushing them meant they weren't ready for the benchmark tests but the tests were based on the pacing guide and she had no choice about when to give those tests. So it is not always the teacher's fault or the student's fault that they don't know how to learn.
Let me talk about another incident. I'd managed to convince another elementary teacher to introduce robots to her class. This was at a Montessori school and the class was a combined 3rd and 4th grade. Two students had made basketball hoops, of sorts. We were going to be using the launcher accessory with Dash to see if we could get a ball through either or both hoops. I sat on the floor with the students and a couple of Dash robots. Kids wanted to just make random adjustments to the coding because, well, they're kids. I wondered aloud what might happen if we were to try to measure this with a protractor and some string. Even the less mathy kids were intrigued and, longer story a smidge shorter, we almost missed lunch calculating range and angles and modifying the code.
At the end of that, what did kids learn? Lots of things. And so many things that didn't align to the standards for the day. One of the students, one of the more gifted students, said "I've never done math that hard before. Can we do more after lunch?" Now there were a lot of students who were less interested in the math but they were interested in making adjustments to the basketball hoop to make it sturdier, so they wanted to experiment with the models themselves and then they were wondering about the size of the hoop itself and if and how that mattered.
Let's think about learning how to read, which is no small thing. I am deliberately going to oversimplify the process because it is complex and I am not a reading specialist. Children are taught their letters. They learn to recognize and name each letter of the alphabet. They learn the sounds of each letter and they learn how to put the letters and their sounds together to make words. They begin to learn that some letters make different sounds depending on how they're put together, so they learn short vowel sounds and long vowel sounds and that, for example, "g" sounds one way in "goat" and another way in "ginger." These are skills that are developed over time and students must have a certain degree of competence and skill to proceed in their development of fluency so they can develop their skills in comprehension. So native English speakers who are struggling readers in 3rd grade have a unique set of challenges from those students who are struggling readers in 8th grade or 11th grade. It may be there were skills the older students didn't learn when they were younger or it may be there are skills they've not be able to practice over the years or there could be a whole host of possibilities that have interfered with these students and their abilities to learn how to read.
The same could be true for math because, like reading, more advanced skills and knowledge build on fundamental skills and knowledge. If I don't understand place value, I'm going to have trouble with pretty much everything. If I don't understand the relationship of numbers, and that -1 is less than 1, and then that -4 is actually less than -1, I'm going have all kinds of problems. As someone who struggled with fractions and decimals myself, making sense of the math came when the relationships of the numbers made more sense, and when I could make more sense of the math vocabulary.
I think most teachers grasp the essentials of learning. They apply it themselves when they learn how to use new technology or when they learn a new strategy. They intuitively recognize that if something doesn't go as they hoped or imagined, they might need to make some adjustments and try it again. They might not be as cognizant of the fact that their experience helps inform how they might implement a new resource or strategy, but if they were asked to examine how and why they implemented a strategy, they'd likely recognize how often they thought about their past experiences as well as what they know of their students.
And most often teachers learn new things to improve their craft because they, like the professional musicians, chefs, athletes, artists, stylists, and others, want to improve their crafts because they want to be better at what they do, they want to expand what they do and how they do it, and because learning feeds something in them. Learning adds more dimension and texture and color to their canvases as teachers.
I don't think most students grasp the essentials of learning. I think we could point to a few things that undermine the process of learning, like pacing guides that insist on teachers being at a certain place in the curriculum at a certain time and teaching to the test, and letting students know we are teaching to the test. And that makes me wonder if we have to do more or other to help students understand how to learn as well as why it is important to learn at all.
Matthew Bromley, an education journalist, wrote a series in 2017 about the process of learning. In the first part, he tackles the question "What is learning?" He points out the need for repetition so that what students are being asked to learn is encoded and retained. He concludes "[l]earning, therefore, is being able to apply knowledge or skills long after we were first taught them and in a number of different situations– perhaps in an assessment as well as repeatedly over a period of time, or even a lifetime."
Yep. All well and good. And all the reading I've done about learning science and cognitive load and cognitive rigor point to the same and similar things. Here's the clincher, though: I'm not going to retain it past the test if I don't think or understand that there's a purpose for that learning. And I'm speaking for me as an adult.
A lot of what Mr. Bromley discusses in subsequent parts of the series is really nothing new to any educator. It's finding the "just right" level, helping students be comfortable with productive struggle, helping them understand that failure is part of learning, etc. There are all kinds of tools and strategies so that we know where students are in their own comfort with their zone of proximal development, even if they don't call it that.
I think part of the challenge of helping students learn how to learn is that so often school unintentionally sabotages them. When kids ask why they have to learn something, it doesn't help if the answer is "Because you need to know this for high school" or "Because you need to know this to pass the standardized test."
At some point students no longer accept that learning for the sake of learning can be amazing, not unless they just like to learn and it saddens me the number of students in that category seems small. On the other hand, we may have put a damper on student enthusiasm for learning because of the way we expect them to experience school.
I know there are no easy answers. Teachers are constrained by the way we "do school" as are administrators who have to be mindful of district and state regulations and expectations.
There are districts that have personalization, project-based learning, deep learning, or something akin to those as an initiative. Teachers who attempt to do any of these well are still constrained by other expectations within the district that are often informed by state mandates that are often influenced by federal mandates.
But I have seen success. I have seen teachers who, even if only for a unit, have been able to help students unlock an interest and maybe even a passion for learning about something. In that instance of learning joy, some students have also discovered something else within them that may not have been directly connected to the task at hand.
My hope is that they will later recall that moment of exuberance and WHY that learning experience mattered, and perhaps build on that as they are filling the canvas of who they are and who they want to be.