Discussion: The Zone of Proximal Development

For this discussion, we’re going to focus on the Zone of Proximal Development concept. In your main response:

  • Explain what the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is in your own words.
  • Once others have posted, you can add to their definition until we have something we’re all comfortable with.
  • In addition, I’d like the conversation to include an idea for a lesson that would have some students working at the lower limit and others at the upper limit of their ZPD.
  • How could you do this in the same classroom? Make sure you have read learning guide 3.5 which relates to differentiation before responding.

4 paragraph minimum!

Learning Guide: Piaget’s Growth of Logic in the Child

The following are two videos (part one and two) that include Piaget talking about his theory, and shows the kinds of experiments he used to evaluate children’s cognitive development. (There is a part 3 as well if you want to continue to watch the video)

It is hard to go back to the state of understanding of child and adolescent development before Piaget’s influence. In the 19th century, children were seen as small adults. Childhood, as we currently know it, is a relatively modern conception. Freud’s theories, which became known about a quarter-century before Piaget’s, depicted children as being qualitatively different from adults, but with the focus on abnormal sexual development. Piaget was the first to create a systematic, experimentally-supported, psychology of child development, with a focus on the development of logic in children and adolescents. His career spanned from 1926 until 1980, lasting more than 50 years.

What was so critical about his work? He understood, and demonstrated, that children of different ages actually construct their internal perspectives on the physical world in systematically different ways.

Learning Guide: Vygotsky’s Social-Cognitive Development

Lev Vygotsky had a short life, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 37. However, his brilliant theoretical framework of social constructivism and his practical approaches to human development, although banned for twenty years after his death, expanded beyond his age (1896 – 1934), his Marxist philosophy, and his place of birth (The Soviet Union). For Vygotsky, human development is the result of socialization. It is from our environment that we gain the conceptual and technical tools which enable us to grow and thrive as humans. For example, in the learning of language, our first utterances with peers or adults are for the purpose of communication. Once mastered, however, they become internalized and allow “inner speech”.

According to Vygotsky, (unlike Piaget) patterns of thinking are not primarily determined by innate factors, but as a result of the activities children practice in their social settings as they grow up. An example of the process which Vygotsky described, is the skill of pointing a finger to indicate an object. Initially, this behavior begins as a reflexive grasping motion. As people react to the gesture, however, it becomes a movement that has meaning. In particular, the pointing gesture represents an interpersonal connection between individuals.

Another particularly useful example of Vygotsky’s, showing the connection between socialization and internalization, is the development of concepts (particularly scientific concepts), which children are able to do around the age of ten to twelve. Vygotsky demonstrated that concepts are incrementally built. When a concept is fully realized within a child, she or he will be able both to manipulate the concept conceptually and to use appropriate language to describe it. Scaffolding is the external support provided by both the social and physical environment that encourages a child to form certain concepts. Without the presence of the cultural tools, and without the modeling as to how to use them, the child would not develop them.

The Zone Of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development is a very important concept for educators to understand. According to Crain (2000), Vygotsky argued that conventional (standardized) tests are an inadequate measure of what students know. He believed that conventional tests can only evaluate what the child can accomplish when working independently–and does not measure whether a child can complete a task while collaborating with others, with some support or guidance. Vygotsky provided as an example a case of two boys who scored at the 8 year old level on a conventional intelligence test, while working independently. Then, the boys were asked by the examiner to solve some new problems, too difficult for the boys to solve on their own, and offered each some slight assistance (e.g., a leading question or the first step of the solution). With this help, one boy scored at the 9 year old level, and the other boy scored at the 12 year old level. Vygotsky called the distance that children can perform beyond their current level the zone of proximal development. More specifically Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as:

“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”

The following (3 minute) video clip shows a few classroom examples of ZPD and scaffolding. It is important to remember that Vygotsky’s theory is very aligned with what we currently call “Differentiation”. Each student has a different ZPD for a particular task so teaching needs to be very individualized, or differentiated.

Learning Guide: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory takes into consideration the impact of several environmental systems including:

  • Microsystem: the setting in which the individual lives (family, peer groups, school, etc.)
  • Mesosystem: the relations between microsystems or connections between contexts (e.g., how the individual’s school experiences relate to the family experiences).
  • Exosystem: links between the social setting where the individual doesn’t have an active role and the individual’s immediate context. (e.g., a child’s experience at home may be influenced by a caretaker’s experience at work).
  • Macrosystem: the culture in which an individual lives.
  • Chronosystem: patterning of environmental events and transitions over the life course (e.g., impact of divorce both in the short term and the long term).

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory Illustrated

The importance of the quality of the home-school link in terms of school success is highlighted by this theory.

Learning Guide: Differentiation in the Classroom

Carol Ann Tomlinson: Differentiated Instruction

(This e-interview with Carol Ann Tomlinson is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series)

Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson understands the challenge of providing appropriate learning experiences for all students. Once a classroom teacher who had to simultaneously meet the needs of kids struggling to read at grade level and those who were ready for Harvard, she turned to differentiated instruction. Included: Tomlinson offers ideas to help teachers “get their feet wet” with differentiated instruction.

As classroom teachers struggle daily to design learning experiences that serve students’ unique abilities, backgrounds, learning styles, and interests, a very practical approach promises to assist them in their quest — differentiated instruction. Billed as more than another educational “buzzword,” this method involves tailoring assignments to suit students’ needs. If differentiated instruction has a single “voice,” it may be that of Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor of educational leadership, foundations and policy at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

A veteran educator, Tomlinson works with teachers across the U.S. and abroad to help them develop classroom lessons that are suited to students with varied learning needs. She is the author of more than 150 articles, book chapters, books, and other professional development materials. Her books include How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners, and Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching.

Tomlinson has more than 20 years of experience as a public school teacher and more than 12 as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners, and she has been named Virginia’s Teacher of the Year (1974) and Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education (2004). She is co-director of the university’s Summer Institute on Academic Diversity and Best Practices Institute.

Tomlinson shared with Education World some insights into how differentiated instruction works and how teachers can get started using it in their classrooms.

Interview

Tomlinson: How do you define differentiated instruction?

Carol Ann Tomlinson: On some level, differentiation is just a teacher acknowledging that kids learn in different ways, and responding by doing something about that through curriculum and instruction. A more dictionary-like definition is “adapting content, process, and product in response to student readiness, interest, and/or learning profile.”

Education World: You’ve stated that differentiated education isn’t a new “phenomenon” in teaching, and in fact, the same kind of approach was required in the one-room schoolhouse of yesteryear. In what ways is differentiation a blend of old and new educational philosophies?

Tomlinson: Anything worthwhile we do in schools is inevitably a blend of old and new. The basic issues and challenges of teaching are constants. How we address those challenges evolves as our understanding of teaching and learning evolves. Ideas of varying materials, meeting with students in small groups, providing scaffolding suited to student need, and so on, are certainly not new. Some of the particular strategies we use to respond to learner need may be new — or newly adapted to provide support for particular groups of learners (such as English language learners or students with learning disabilities). Our understanding of how students learn is continually evolving. That enables us to refine or better target our assistance to students.

Education World: Although both seek to meet students’ needs as unique learners, how does differentiated instruction differ from individualized instruction?

Tomlinson: Individualized instruction proposes that each learner have materials and tasks based on the very particular needs of that student. It’s likely that (a) we could never generate enough lesson plans to address the needs of each individual we teach, and (b) we really don’t know how to make such precise distinctions between each student so that we could “slice the onion that thin” — even if time were not an issue.

Differentiation suggests we look at “ballparks” or “zones” in which students cluster — so that on a particular day, depending on our students and their needs — we might offer two or three or four routes to a goal — not 23 or 30. In addition, during the heyday of individualized instruction, our sense of student learning was based on behaviorism (absorption, drill, repetition) — and curriculum had that orientation. Now we understand more fully the role of the brain in learning — the need for students to make sense of what they learn. Individualized instruction tended to have more of a drill orientation. Differentiation focuses also on helping students understand ideas and apply skills so that they develop frameworks of meaning that allow them to retain and transfer what they study.

Education World: Based on your experience, how do students respond to differentiated instruction?

Tomlinson: I think kids are keenly aware of differences among themselves. I think they fully understand they are not cookie-cutter images of one another. They see that in many facets of their lives. When teachers engage kids in talking about their particular strengths, weaknesses, interests, and ways of learning — and in developing a classroom where everyone gets the help and support they need to grow as much as possible — I see kids who are very enthusiastic about that approach to teaching and learning. Without having opportunities to engage in conversation about what makes a classroom effective, how such classrooms need to operate to be effective, and how they can contribute to that, it’s likely that many students would feel uncomfortable because of uncertainty about how things work.

Education World: How do you recognize a differentiated classroom? Is there a feature that immediately suggests to you that a teacher is using this method?

Tomlinson: I think the two most readily visible hallmarks are flexibility and student-focus. In a differentiated classroom, it’s likely an observer would readily notice the teacher’s intent to use materials, time, space, small groups, tasks, and a host of other resources in flexible ways. In addition, it would likely be clear that the teacher puts the kids at the center of learning — as well as involving them in making decisions about how the classroom is working for them and for their peers.

Education World: What often surprises teachers who practice differentiated instruction?

Tomlinson: A common surprise for teachers is that many students who are restless, uninvolved, or misbehave in one-size-fits-all settings become “less problematic” in effectively differentiated classrooms. I think we often worry particularly about students who pose behavior issues in the classroom and conclude that in more flexible settings, the problems would intensify. In fact, they often lessen because the system is working better for the student.

Education World: How do you counter those who suggest that this method can be too difficult and time-consuming for the regular classroom teacher to implement?

Tomlinson: We can do nearly anything we need to do in a classroom as long as we are (a) willing to begin developing the necessary skills, and (b) willing to persist in ensuring that the skills mature. It makes much more sense to begin working with responsive teaching in small ways, and building on those over time. Trying to do too much too fast is likely to overwhelm and discourage us. A step at a time, we can do pretty amazing things. Teachers who have differentiated instruction for a long time will tell you it ultimately takes them no more time to plan to teach that way than any other way. The approach becomes natural — second nature. The challenge is in the early days when the skills feel new and uncertain to us. At that point, the trick is to ensure that we’re moving forward, but not pushing ourselves beyond reason.

Education World: Will you describe a simple kind of differentiated classroom activity that would enable teachers to “get their feet wet” with this method?

Tomlinson: There are lots of possibilities. Teachers can use graphic organizers to help some kids take notes more effectively — there are good ones available commercially. We can give kids the options of working alone or with a partner. We can provide two ways to express learning rather than just one. We can highlight text — marking the really essential portions of a chapter with a highlight marker — to support reading of English language learners or students with learning disabilities. We can make sure to do whole-to-part teaching rather than only part-to-whole. We can meet with small groups of students while other kids are doing required written work. There really are many things we can do to make classrooms a better fit for more kids without “breaking the bank” of our planning time.

Education World: What advice do you have for teachers who are just starting out with differentiation?

Tomlinson: Become a kid watcher. Study the kids in any moment and in any way you can. Learn to see them as individuals rather than a group. Ask them how the class is working for them and how to make it work better. Then begin to respond to what you see. Each step you take will teach you, if you want to learn. If you combine that with regular pre-assessment of student competencies and begin to think about teaching with student needs in mind, you’ll be off to a great start.

Note: This e-interview with Carol Ann Tomlinson is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series.

For more information on Differentiation, click on the following videos where Carol Ann Tomlinson talks about specific strategies for differentiating in the classroom.

Carol Ann Tomlinson has written and spoken extensively about differentiation. If you want to find additional information on differentiation, she has many publications and videos.

Learning Guide: What is Constructed Knowledge?

The concept of constructed knowledge will be introduced here, so that you can be thinking about it as you do your observations, participate in discussions, and consider how learning takes place.

Although the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky had different starting points and described different processes, they both contended that knowledge is constructed. For Piaget, who started his career as a zoologist, equilibrium between the self and the environment was key. At all times and at all areas of our lives, we are engaged in the processes of assimilation and accommodation. For Vygotsky, who was a Marxist and an artist, the interaction between the self and the environment was paramount. We are all the product of our cultures. To some, these theories complement each other.

Constructivism is not a new concept. It has its roots in philosophy and has been applied to sociology and anthropology, as well as cognitive psychology and education. Immanual Kant, who declared that we have innate structures which we use to organize our worlds, had a particularly powerful influence on Piaget Illustration of an abstract sculpture of a seated woman who used those categories of time, space, and causation, as the basis for the development of logic. The development of logic was, indeed, the ability to use time and space in increasingly operational ways. And operations on objects in time and space only develop when learners actively engage with them, connect their experiences with them to prior assimilated knowledge, and construct interpretations of events using the logic available to them.

Within a given classroom, the levels of logic available to students is likely to vary across three – or even more – stages of development. So, inevitably students at different stages will construct very different interpretations of what is presented to them. Some of these interpretations will be invalid, some of them incomplete, and some of them valid.

In order for students to reconstruct existing interpretations which are not valid or incomplete, they must see the difference and feel a dissonance between their current view and the more correct interpretation that is being presented to them. Each higher level of development provides an increase in those memory stores (remember what we learned about increased axonal connections and myelination in the last module). Students must engage actively in resolving the difference and that only happens when they can retain both perspectives in memory simultaneously. Those students who are not yet ready to resolve the conflict that will take them to a higher level of understanding, can be scaffolded by others so that when they are ready, they have had exposure to a path.

General ObservationsJean PiagetLev Vygotsky
Interaction with the environment is criticalChild as a ‘little scientist’Child as a growing social being
Role of LearnerActive interaction of learner with environment
Individual construction of knowledge
Egocentric speech reflects failure to take perspective of others
Active interaction of learner with environment
Social construction of knowledge
Egocentric speech is pivotal in shaping thinking
Role of Language in creating shared cognitionUtterances are not related to thought in sensorimotor period (0-2 years)
Speech is not used to direct activity
Child uses egocentric speech from 3 – 7 which is overt monologue
Social interaction is source of higher mental processes – caregivers give meaning to child’s utterances
adult/peer talk is internalized into
private speech
Role of TeacherProvide physical experience of the concept
Provide dissonance between present and desired form of understanding
Use peers as guides to new learning
exploration with guidance
Use zone of proximal development
Scaffolding to new levels of task
Apprentice-expert relationship
Coaching, articulation, reflection
 
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