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

Montessori and the Right Brain


Maria Montessori and the Right Brain


The inner powers of the child have never been realized, neither from the intellectual nor from the moral point of view.” 1 Maria Montessori

This quote suggests that Dr. Montessori believed that there was much more to discover about the human potential. Glenn Doman didn’t just stumble upon the right brain powers by accident.  They have always been there, and I believe that Maria Montessori, an early outstanding early childhood educator, made indirect reference to their existence even before modern references.

Montessori and the Absorbent Mind

Perhaps Maria Montessori was one of the first to hint that there was something about children’s minds that was truly unique.  She coined a term for this mind “the absorbent mind”.  This was a mind that could absorb, seemingly effortlessly, from the environment so much more information than could an adult mind.   She wrote often about the prejudices against her discoveries about the absorbent mind of children.

Her words:

There exists in the small child an unconscious mental state which is of a creative nature.  We have called it the ‘Absorbent Mind’.  This absorbent mind does not construct with a voluntary effort, but according to the lead of inner sensitivities which we call ‘ sensitive periods’ as the sensitivity lasts only for a definite period, i.e. until the acquisition to be made according to natural development has been achieved”  …If we (adults) learn anything through attention, volition and intelligence, how then can the child undertake his great construction as he is not yet endowed with intelligence, will-power  or attention?  It is evident that in him there acts a mind totally different from ours and that, therefore, a psychic functioning different from that of the conscious mind can exist in the unconscious. 2

So, she established the notion of how infants and young children learn – by unconsciously absorbing from the environment information.   At times she writes about the conscious absorbent mind, the subconscious absorbent mind and at other times the unconscious absorbent mind (all were absorbent!).   It is unclear to me what distinctions Montessori is using when she uses the terms the conscious, the unconscious and the subconscious minds. Montessori seems to use all three terms in her discussions of the absorbent mind (which underwent translation from Italian to English) and it is often difficult to tell which she is speaking of without clear definitions, which I have not find in her writings.  So I do not wish to put words into her head.

For her, the absorbent mind seemed to be the all-inclusive term referring to all aspects of what to her seemed to be a miraculous and different way young children were able to learn. She knew the absorbent mind was a gift that a child was born with, but she didn’t seem to be clear on the why or the how.  Certainly, her followers did not pick up on the more mysterious aspects of her message preferring to play it safe with the idea that the absorbent mind referred to “sensitive periods” –  which followed nature’s orderly unfolding evident to the physical eye of the adult and thus scientific study.

This statement sums up the Montessori Method as it is practiced today in the U.S.  “Life is divided into well-defined periods.  Each period develops properties the construction of which is guided by laws of nature.” 3 The materials in the classroom assist the child in progressing through these well-defined periods. All is known; there is no mystery yet to uncover.

I think Montessori herself, was much more open-minded and pointing to something even deeper.  I’ll give you examples of several unclear references which hint at these deeper mysterious learning forces. Without really realizing it, I believe she was the forerunner of right brain education by her discoveries of the abilities of some children that she observed and commented upon.

Here, she marvels at a child working on fractions.

Once a child acquired the capacity to carry out quite complicated operations with fractions without writing them down. He thus showed his ability to retain in his mind the image of the numbers and the successive operations. While the child carried out these operations mentally, a teacher did so on paper, not being able to do them otherwise. At the end of his calculation the child announced his result…the result was not correct. The child, without being perturbed in the least, thought for a while and then said: “Yes, I see where I made a mistake,” and gave the correct result a little while later. 4

Montessori comments: “The mind of the child, evidently, possessed a peculiar faculty for retaining all these successive phases.” 5   To me this seems to be a clear description of the right brain rapid math calculation ability as described by Dr. Shichida. (Dr. Shichida was a Japanese educator who built on Glen Doman’s work on accelerated learning).

Another example:  “There is, therefore, an inner energy which of its nature tends to manifest itself, but remains buried under universal prejudices.” 6

And another:

The thought that there could be a form of memory in younger children  different from that of older children could not be conceived….Evidently the word, in all its detail, was sculptured in his (child’s) memory.  The word, the sounds that compose it and their correct succession remained complete in his mind—nothing could efface them. That memory was of a different nature from that of older children.  It created a kind of vision in the mind and the child reproduced this clear and fixed vision with certainty.7

This selection describes the absorbent mind of an infant learning its native language (a process which scientists still cannot fully explain). Note the words vision in the mind.

Does this sound like similarities with right brain characteristics?  Her words….”memory different”…”memory sculptured”…”a kind of vision in the mind”.  Could this be photographic memory she was referring to?

And another:

The inner powers of the child have never been realized, neither from the intellectual nor from the moral point of view.…Our social mentality has not yet grasped the idea that we can receive help from the child, that the child can give us a light and a lesson, a new vision and a solution for inextricable problems.  Even psychologists do not see in him an open door through which they may enter the subconscious.  Even they still try to discover and decipher it through the ills of the adult only.8

Now we see she has used the word subconscious.

Terms similar to right brain education include:  ”…unrealized inner power”…”solutions for inextricable problems”…”open door to the subconscious”.

And again Montessori writes: “Is it then possible that there exists a memory different from that of our conscious and developed minds?”9

Again we hear in her words, similarities with right brain education – “a memory different from that of our conscious minds.”  This sounds like Shichida’s right brain encyclopedic memorization function.

Whether in this next quote she was referring specifically to the absorbent mind or to all the amazing qualities of children, we find a hopeful, beautiful statement to conclude this section on Maria Montessori.

When prejudice will be vanquished by knowledge, then there will appear in the world a “superior child” with his marvelous powers which today remain hidden.  Then there will appear the child who is destined to form humanity capable of understanding and controlling our present civilization.10

As I read Montessori’s writings, I have had the feeling that something has been left out of her methodology.  Not from her writings, but from the full incorporation of her suggestions about the absorbent mind into her developed curriculum.  As I have suggested, she hints at other ways of knowing and learning but leaves the hints dangling in the air.   Based on these quotes from her writings, I am convinced that she uncovered right brain abilities of preschool age children even though she was not able to offer a scientific explanation for them.  I invite the Montessori community of learners to explore these hints and arrows that Maria Montessori seems to have left for future generations.


1. Montessori, M. (1969) The formation of man. Translated by Joosten, A.M., India, Madras:  Theosophical Publishing House, p. 42
2. Ibid., p. 84
3. Ibid., p. 91
4. Ibid., p. 56
5. Ibid
6. Ibid., p. 33
7. Ibid., p. 36
8. Ibid., p. 42-3
9. Ibid., p. 36
10. Ibid. p. 99
Dr. Celeste Miller



What the NEA Says Kids Need

What the NEA Says Kids Need

Grit is a quality that has been identified by the National Education Association (NEA) as the quality, above all others, that guarantees the success of a student in school and later in life.  Not DNA, not I.Q., not taking accelerated courses, not doing well on academic testing, but grit.  Grit is a difficult concept to define.  The author, Paul Tough has given us his understanding in the recently published book, How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.  He says grit includes the qualities of perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control and that these are the ultimate keys to success.

So let’s examine how, or if, a Montessori education is developing grit in children.  I can think of any number of activities that might contribute to this. Giving children physically challenging activities in the practical life materials sets the stage, even as early as age 2, for overcoming obstacles.  Experiences like getting all the grains of rice poured back into the bowl without spilling any, carrying a long rod that is longer than your arms outstretched across the room without hitting anyone with it on the way, carrying a heavy chair and placing it quietly on the floor, picking up the beans that you have spilled on the floor one at a time until they are back in their container, are just a few that come to mind.  And for the older primary child, skip counting all the beads on the 1000 bead chain over a series of days is certainly an arduous task.  Yes, most, if not all, Montessori classroom activities would potentially build a sense of responsibility, stick-to-itiveness, and task completion.  The need to do the “job” correctly – any Montessori piece of material – is applied to all children, regardless of their backgrounds or talents. The end result for many children is the development of “perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control”, the very qualities Tough is promoting.  This is the great beauty of the Montessori approach and the end result is now being validated by mainstream education experts as parents everywhere are being told to help their children develop grit.  I say to the NEA, “What took you so long?”

There is a term normalization that is used in the Montessori lingo.  It refers to whether a child has acclimated to the Montessori environment. Thus, teachers speak of whether a child is normalized or not.  I prefer the word accommodated.  Nonetheless, the reactions the teacher hopes to see are the same.  Has a child learned the routines of work and found joy in facing the challenges the materials present? If so, this would be the obvious first phase of the development of grit.  This process of self-mastery begins with the feeling of accomplishment and self-pride that children feel when a difficult task has been mastered.  You can see it on their faces without them even telling you what they have done.  This is how to build character.  This is why Montessori teachers do not interfere with the work of the child and why there is a control of error inherent in each activity so they don’t have to interfere for self-control to develop and learning to occur.

So, we need to remember not to make things too easy for children in our homes.  Let them struggle a little to end up with the satisfaction of having overcome an obstacle. Montessori said never do for the child what they can do for themselves. In the end their accomplishments will build character and the other mysterious qualities in the word grit that are now considered so important in learning.

Dr. Celeste Miller

Catalina, AZ

Mrs. Great Horned Owl


Thoughts on Montessori – On Order

A place for everything and everything in its place is a maxim of the Montessori Method.   Order has been called the first law of the universe.  In the early 1900’s scientists were excited to realize that everything in the universe went along in an orderly fashion, no doubt influencing Maria Montessori as well, who was truly a scientist at heart.  Today, scientists explore chaos theory which challenges this idea, but perhaps only because our minds can’t expand far enough to see the order in the chaos.  Montessori found that a sensitive period for the “need for order” emerged in a child at the age of two. To give Montessori credit where credit should be due, modern psychologists like Howard Gardner, have also identified a point in brain development for the emergence of a sense of order, and guess what, it’s also at age two!

You are probably thinking, “My 2-year old sure isn’t (wasn’t) orderly.”  What does this research mean?  It means the brains of two year olds are counting on things being a certain way over and over again because their brains are now able to sequence.  Think of it this way.  When the meltdowns occur at this age, it is often because the child’s sense of order has been rearranged by an adult for a number of good reasons (to the adult’s way of thinking). This can be disruptive to the child’s schema of what is supposed to happen first, second and then third.  The term, the terrible two’s, is often used to describe this stage of development and I guess toddlers can be pretty terrible if the adults don’t understand about schemas. That’s why it’s important to introduce some predictable order into a two year olds’ life.

You can create some of this order by having bed time rituals, morning get up times, naptime, etc. happen with the same routine each day.  In fact, any time of the day that you can organize with some sameness is helpful.  If your days aren’t that predictable then settle on the going to bed and getting up rituals as basic ones to follow.

Why would nature time the development of needing a schema/order/ritual/sameness in the child at this age?  As I have thought on this over the years and learned something about brain development, I wonder, perhaps, if it isn’t nature’s way of controlling (damping down) the powerful stimuli from the environment that bombard the brain at this time in development.  If part of your daily experience can be orderly, predictable, with few surprises because there is order in your life, maybe this frees up the brain to concentrate more fully on the new stimuli flooding in.  Infants sleep to dumb down the stimuli, but 2 year olds are awake for longer stretches of time and so perhaps the need for order provides the same effect to the brain as needing frequent naps does for infants.  Maybe it is nature’s way of protecting and focusing the brain on what is “new and different” while allowing for “sameness” in other areas, improving the efficiency of learning.

In any case, in an authentic Montessori classroom, you will find the beautiful order to the material arranged on the shelves in systematic ways which comforts the child with the sameness. Maria said the environment was the 4th teacher and I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling of “wholeness” whenever I step into a Montessori classroom.  Just the layout itself is “teaching” order.  Trying to set up a child’s environment at home to honor this principle is more challenging as usually there are more toys to display than you have shelves for them to go on.  Dumping toys into bins, boxes, chests and the like hardly reinforces the order of the classroom.  No easy answers there.  Parents always ask, “Why isn’t my child neat at home?”  Perhaps we should be satisfied that the brain is developing “neatness” and leave it at that. I know my grown children are good housekeepers and whether that is because they went to Montessori schools or not, I’ll never know. They sure weren’t that neat as children!

As we understand the importance of repetition and order in development, we can examine what concepts are being reinforced that will become good habits of mind and heart in the lives of our children.  Montessori-based experiences are reinforcing good habits in so many ways.

Dr. Celeste Miller


Cockatoos all in a row

Cockatoos all in a row