Friday, April 22, 2016

ZPD: A Heuristic With Merit

"On any list of differences that matter most for learning, the level of language fluency and reading ability will be at or near the top. While some kinds of difficulties that require increased cognitive effort can strengthen learning, not all difficulties we face have that effect. If the additional effort required to overcome the deficit does not contribute to more robust learning, it’s not desirable. An example is the poor reader who cannot hold onto the thread of a text while deciphering individual words in a sentence."

Brown, Peter C. (2014-04-14). Make It Stick (p. 141). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Reading the passage above reminded me of one of the central concepts in the Accelerated Reader “system”:  “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD.  A.R. urges teachers to carefully supervise student reading so that students read in range which allows for lots of practice at a comfortable level and a moderate and well-controlled amount of challenge.  If a child’s ability to read and remember text  is limited to, say, Magic Treehouse books, a Harry Potter book would not be a successful read, educationally speaking, no matter how much the child wanted to be like her peers and read the longer book.  

Throughout my career in the classroom, I kept the ZPD concept close at hand for all tasks.  No matter what the lesson of the day was in the math book, students who didn’t firmly understand its antecedents was not going to understand today’s lesson.  It’s one of classroom teaching’s greatest challenges:  how do you teach to the group when part of the group isn’t ready for what you’re teaching?

While I don’t have the answer to the question, I can urge teachers to keep the ZPD concept firmly in mind and to look for ways to individualize instruction whenever and wherever possible.  Brown follows the above passage with a discussion of identifying the strengths of individuals who are struggling and helping the learner define and rely on those strengths.  For example, research has shown that dyslexics, while struggling with the nuts and bolts of text, are often quite adept at understanding the big picture, that is, major concepts.  It becomes our mission, therefore, to identify what a child can do, build on it, and affirm it.  It will be that child’s strength throughout life.

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