The Zone of Proximal Development

Every teacher discovers quickly that not all children are learning at the same level. For some children, information is too easy and for others it is difficult.  Most teachers in traditional education try to aim somewhere in the middle range and hope the class can be carried forward more or less together.

In public education, education is rarely targeted at the individual learner unless it is in the realm of special education. I believe that providing for individualized education in group settings would catapult our children to greater mastery.

The concept that learning needs to be individualized was first put forth by Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, during the 1930’s and caught on in educational circles in the U.S. in the 1980’s.

Vygotsky said that learning needs to take place in the immediate area between a skill level already mastered and the next level of needed mastery. This range, he called the “zone of proximal development” (the zone that is proximal (close to) the learner).  This ideal range for individual learning is thus called the child’s zone of proximal development (ZPD. Another way to think of this is that the ZPD is the next developmental level of a person’s internalization of fact, experience, or sensation. If information is too challenging, a person is frustrated.  If information is too familiar a person is only reviewing and possibly bored.

All of a person’s soul, mind, and emotions are developing within a unique zone of proximal development (ZPD),that is theirs alone. Pestalozzi indirectly referred to orchestrating teaching to the ZPD when he wrote:

The great and fundamental principle is never to attempt to teach children what they cannot comprehend, and to teach them in the exact ratio of their understanding it, without omitting one link in the chain of ratiocination, proceeding always from the known to the unknown, from the most easy to the most difficult, practicing the most extensive and accurate use of all the senses, exercising, improving and perfecting all the mental and corporeal faculties by quickening combination, accelerating and carefully arranging comparisons, judiciously and impartially making deduction, summing up the results free from prejudices and cautiously avoiding the delusions of imagination, the constant source of ignorance and error.[1]

Another theorist, Csikszentmihalyi, put forth the concept of “flow” which occurs when the perfect combination of challenge and mastery is achieved as a child works in his or her zone of proximal development.[2]  This feeling of flow is one of euphoria, oneness with life, comfort, bliss, and maybe represents the momentary integration of the physical person with the blueprint of the soul (my idea). We often see children in this state of “flow” in situations where they are fully engaged and oblivious to their surroundings.  Being in the “zone” brings about this feeling of connectedness to life through the activity in which we are engaged.

The participation of the soul in learning is yet another reason to be concerned with the ZPD. If we believe that the soul is involved in our education, then the zone of proximal development relates to the soul as well as to human development because it is an indication of where we need to put our attention in this life. Each person’s soul is at a certain stage of development towards their ultimate goal of self-realization of their blueprint.  Our karma dictates in many ways where our ZPD of soul development is. Home and family life, as well as classroom opportunities, present opportunities for growing within one’s zone. The Greater Self is a resource to guide and guard this zone of proximal development. The Greater Self, acting as the inner teacher, is like an internal compass. For these reasons, it is vital that all children receive opportunities to learn within their zone of proximal development at each physical, psychological, and spiritual stage of development.

The Montessori classroom allows for the various “zones” of the children to be expressed by the diversification of the material that is in the classroom as curriculum. Every child can be working within their ZPD without getting in the way of another child’s learning.  Being behind or ahead of their neighbor is not causing problems for the teacher, because each Montessori child usually works solo on their lessons or teams up with another child who is at the same level of development.  Or, the more experienced child becomes the teacher to a younger, less experienced child for some learning.  Generally speaking, the individualization of the approach to curriculum development and delivery allows for individual mastery similar to special education classrooms in the public schools.

One significant step to improving our public schools would be to have curriculums that would allow for individual learning which our technology is now capable of delivering.  Until every child is rapidly progressing through their zones of learning, opportunities are being wasted and hours in school are sacrificed to inefficiency.  It would behoove us to universally adapt the Montessori approach to curriculum.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow, the psychology of optimal experience. NY, New York:  Harper Collins.

++Celeste's Orchids+r2

Photography by Tom Miller

New Year’s Resolutions for Teachers

I just spent three months renewing my dedication to children while teaching in a Montessori toddler classroom. Based on that transformative experience, I want to suggest, once again, this list of resolutions for teachers (and parents).

  1. Stay positive and loving, come what may.
  2. Listen carefully and try to hear the hidden messages behind words.
  3. Never hold a grudge for anything a child has done.
  4. Keep the boundaries for good behavior firm, but in a loving way.
  5. Praise good behavior more often than saying “don’ts”.
  6. Don’t blame yourself for meltdowns. This skill is an acquired one.
  7. Take time out to study child development.
  8. Take good care of yourself.
  9. Follow the child into amazing landscapes of their minds and hearts.
  10. If you find you don’t really enjoy children, change your profession.

When they hug you, it is a gift from God.

Photograph by Tom Miller

Photograph by Tom Miller

Happy Holidays to all


I will have the great pleasure of having a full family contingent arriving very soon for the holidays and thus, Mrs. Claus has much to do to prepare.  So, I’ll be back on line in January.  Thank you for your understanding. Tom is preparing a Christmas Card for you which we will send to our subscribers when it is completed.  In the meantime, enjoy this picture taken in Egypt a few years ago.

To me, it represents the statement, “A little child shall lead them.”  My hope is that there are many little children being born again this winter all over the world who, when they grow up, will inspire mankind to take one step higher in the spiral of evolution.

Celeste A. Miller

JPG+Child in front of Sphinx & Great Pyramid-1

Make Learning Experiences Exciting and Real


The brain likes to solve problems and an exciting classroom would have a variety of problems to solve.  In order to prepare children to deal with a world that is becoming increasingly more complex, we need to allow for children to solve problems in multiple ways. Experimentation with various materials would allow for this.  For example, math problems can be solved in multiple ways, obviously artistic drawings can be done in multiple ways, storytelling can be done with variations in script, and learning can be shared in a variety of ways with one another.  These are activities which help children to problem solve from multiple perspectives, which will in turn unlock individual gifts and creativity, and train children to apply their creativity to deal effectively with change and crisis.

Encourage Scientific Inquiry

Education should encourage scientific inquiry because scientific inquiry is a natural innate ability in the brain of even the youngest baby.  Scientific inquiry could be considered dependent or independent learning based on the type of study, the numbers of children involved, and curriculum organization.  Scientific forays into the environment are what develop the concepts of object, space, time, and causality in the brain.  Science experiments can help children to develop thinking, reasoning, and decision-making skills.  These skills are developed through the ability of the mind to concentrate on completing tasks with specific steps and procedures which need to be followed –basically, the scientific method.  The focus required to complete a sequence of events with precision develops this ability to focus and concentrate.  That ability in turn later helps a child apply this focus and concentration on more complex learning experiences.  This is why we provide children with step-by-step instructions for some tasks, but not all.  If we allowed for choice in scientific exploration, we might find that our students are not ranking anymore near the bottom of the list of those countries that test children in the knowledge of scientific principles.

Utilize the Multiple Intelligence Theory

The educational model of Multiple Intelligence Theory (Gardner) has given education a big boost in incorporating problem solving strategies into the curriculum.  Gardner identified eight and a half basic types of intelligence: language, mathematics, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical, naturalistic, and the half – spiritual (He’s not positive yet there is a spiritual intelligence).[1]   He has shown us how we can teach by utilizing multiple problem-solving strategies using these multiple intelligences, multiple learning styles, and multiple ways of representing knowledge.

Explore with the Laboratory Approach

Another type of exciting learning is called the laboratory approach with field study.  In this case, teacher instruction happens concurrently with an activity out of which the teacher pulls the appropriate subject-matter material.  The teacher takes the children where the action is (children visit courthouse) or brings the action to the children (a courthouse is created in the school).  The learning process occurs as the child interacts with the stimulus of the experience and organizes his own impressions and sensations.  These activities are designed to involve the children directly in hands-on experiences.  Field trips, books, films, slides, filmstrips, tape recordings, bulletin boards, pictures, and other visual aids would be supplemental.  In addition, children can learn how to problem solve by observing how others demonstrate their mastery in the giving of their gifts to their respective community of learners. This might be by tailing community workers on an 8-hour job, or attending planning sessions, or conferences related to their area of interest.  All of this could even be done online with technology, and students would not even need to leave the classroom.

Base the Curriculum on Themes

For older children, the curriculum could be organized around general themes to include a number of subject areas.  Efforts would be made to expose children to areas of learning such as:  anthropology, art, astronomy, biology, chemistry, economics, foreign languages, geology, home economics, health, history, literature, music, physics, sociology, and zoology.  For example, the theme of cycles could be studied by delving into the seasons, weather patterns, temperature, animal migrations, human growth, holidays, ecology, food, or planets, to mention a few areas.  From such a study, the child would learn that cycles are one of the underlying themes of our existence on Earth, affecting us personally and impersonally and overlapping into every area of life.  This type of study favors divergent thinking, problem-solving, and gives choices.  Potentially, the environment in the classroom can actually consist of the entire world through the wonders of modern technology.

Example: The Micro Society Concept

I am reminded of the micro society concept used with middle- school children, where every child has a job within a functioning micro society that mimics the real world. During the half day devoted to this model of educating, teens are constantly solving the problems of finance, marketing, retailing, management, etc. as they play act with storefronts, money, and materials used in the real work-a-day world.  There is choice, freedom of movement, responsibility, and many opportunities to use writing, speaking, mathematical, planning, analysis, and research skills. This type of exposure has relevance to teens and preteens because someday they will be active in the real society.  I think it’s also a great way to teach part to whole and whole to part concepts as well.  This method also parallels the research stating that interest is essential for learning to take place because students choose which role in the micro society they want to take on.

Dr. Celeste Miller (Educating the Reincarnated Child).

[1]Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple intelligences.  NY, New York:  Basic Books

Photography by Tom Miller

Cactus flower – Tucson