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.

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Photography by Tom Miller