Dr. Judith M. Newman



Zone Of Proximal Development

[ Journal Entry ]

Back to Interwoven Conversations. On page 179 I mention Lev Vygotsky’s work on zone of proximal development .

…we learn from seeing how others do things and by trying them out with whatever assistance is available and thereby become able to do many things autonomously. That’s why a collaborative context is crucial if we want learning to occur. We are learning from each other all the time.

In his own words, (Mind in Society, 1978) Vygotsky argues

using imitation, children are capable of doing much more in collective activity or under the guidance of adults. This fact, which seems to be of little significance in itself, is of fundamental importance in that it demands a radical alteration of the entire doctrine concerning the relation between learning and development in children [italics mine]. …The notion of zone of proximal development enables us to propound a new formula, namely that the only “good learning” is that which is in advance of development (p. 88-89).

This notion of operating ahead of ourselves is what’s driving me to hang out with the hang gliding pilots. Saturday and again Tuesday afternoon I went to the flight park. I was hoping to get some tandem flying in but circumstances didn’t afford that. However, my time certainly wasn’t wasted—I learn a lot by hearing the guys talk, watching them set-up, listening to the instruction they’re receiving from Barry. The instruction may not make a lot of sense to me at that moment but something of it will feel familiar when I’m ready for it (Conroy, right?). So Saturday, I took up the passenger seat in the tow truck to watch and talk to Gerry while he was being tow-driver—I wanted to learn about towing; about how fast the truck should go, how to keep track of air speed, how to keep an eye on the winch operator, how to respond to the radio commands from the pilot. I can’t do most of that myself yet, but when I’m ready to try, with Gerry beside me prompting, it will feel reasonably familiar having been with him on several tows. Every part of the process is like that—I learn from watching what the guys are doing. I also need hands-on time myself.

I consciously think about setting up this kind of learning environment for you—where you can learn from one another, where you get hands-on experiences, where I can ask questions to guide your observation and judgement-making. The same supportive environment that the St. Boniface teachers and I were exploring with their kids. I’m keeping a close watch on what risks you are taking, trying to assess your growth in terms of your intentions.

John Dewey (Experience and Education, 1938) comes at this same issue in terms of experience. He makes the following observations:

…the experiences which were had, by pupils and teachers alike, were largely of a wrong kind. How many students, for example, were rendered callous to ideas, and how many lost the impetus to learn because of the way in which learning was experienced by them? How many acquired special skills by means of automatic drill so that their power of judgment and capacity to act intelligently in new situations was limited? How many came to associate the learning process with ennui and boredom? How many found what they did learn so foreign to the situations of life outside the school as to give them no power or control over the latter? (p.27)

There are two essentials to a learning experience, Dewey believes. He contends that it is part of

the educator’s responsibility to see equally to two things: First, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of the capacity of the students; and secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas.

What fascinates me is how these ideas all interconnect; how interwoven they are. And how they have had a profound influence on how I see myself as a teacher.