Gaining Mastery

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The zone of proximal development is used as a framework to help parents and teachers understand how to support and foster learning. You can easily apply the model to your own life to help you acquire and master new skills and see what may have contributed to your successes or failures in past endeavors. Ideally you will be able to use the zone to quickly assess where you are in the learning process and then adjust environmental conditions to meet you there.

Think of the zone of proximal development as the range within which you are able to perform an activity. The upper part of the range is where you can do it with assistance or instruction. Slightly above the highest level is the area where you could not perform the task, even if someone was helping. Near the lower levels of the zone you don’t need much help at all, and below the lowest level is where you can perform the task easily, even if you are doing it all by yourself. The zone is a moving target that follows development because with skill acquisition we can perform activities at increasingly complex levels. What was once in the upper range of impossible might soon exist on the low range of being able to do quite easily.

For example, there is a tremendous difference between reading ‘The Boxcar Children’ and reading ‘War and Peace’. With a young reader we are concerned with creating a zone where some of the goals are word acquisition, good pronunciation, and basic comprehension. We will use books with basic grammar and focus on elementary parts of language to help facilitate these goals. The student would of course never be expected to read or understand a complex, challenging novel like ‘War and Peace’ . If she were expected to read it and was critically evaluated based on how she performed she would experience anxiety, frustration, and eventually boredom during the process. Obviously this example is extreme because no one would expect a young student to read Tolstoy.

But what about the kid whose parents couldn’t afford preschool or send him to a good kindergarten, and whose home life has been chaotic? He hasn’t been read to very much and does not have a firm grasp on the alphabet. If we lump him in with all the other students, he will feel stupid by comparison and probably zone out during teaching sessions addressing reading and grammar, falling even further behind. His lack of understanding is not proof of his lack of intelligence, but only proof that the teaching in the activity is too far above his zone of proximal development. This assistance needs to be readjusted to his level of learning in order to help him move forward and catch him up with the rest of the class.

Incidentally, one of the best ways to help young children learn to read and probably my biggest takeaway from a class on literary instruction is to get them to start reading a series like ‘The Boxcar Children’ or ‘Harry Potter’. What happens is that the basic formula for each book is the same, so the child gets to stop working on trying to follow the story or make sense of what is happening. The narrative and style are familiar and predictable and little effort has to be put into understanding the flow of the book. Therefore the child gets to focus all energy on language acquisition and raising vocabulary dramatically in a short amount of time. Since the story seems so familiar, and the child has sketches of the personalities and habits of all the characters, he or she can use context clues to understand the meanings of sentences and pick up new words along the way. The symptoms of this sort of engagement with learning are to feel a sense of efficacy and empowerment. The learner gets to feel smart, and notices real improvement. A person starts to feel confident that all learning goals are possible.

Using children’s series is also a great way for anyone to improve in a foreign language for all of the reasons I just mentioned. I used the ‘Harry Potter’ series to help me quickly improve in Spanish while I lived in South America and it worked great. I also found that the words were quite useful and everyday, which is the case in pretty much all children’s novels. Make sure you choose a series that feels engaging and that you can comprehend although with some trouble. Use this same criteria to help your child or student select a series. Not too easy that it costs the student little trouble or concentration to understand, but not too challenging that general comprehension is impossible. This is the zone of proximal development and you want it moving with you at all times for maximum performance. You always want things to be challenging but doable.

Once they start to feel too easy it’s time to raise your level of mastery by changing environmental conditions to where you are. Maybe you have been skiing intermediate runs all season and now can scoot down them without much trouble. But you also notice yourself getting bored with the same routes and that the level of concentration and challenge that made skiing so exciting is starting to dissipate. You realize it’s time to try a black diamond and challenge your mastery of skiing further by introducing steeper runs with less grooming. You find the same act of skiing challenging again, and you will have to improve in key areas to meet these new challenges. By next season an intermediate run will seem much easier than it does right now, and the black diamond runs that seemed impossible will be challenging but doable, as your whole zone of proximal development will have shifted.

It’s important to understand and consciously remind yourself that every person has numerous proximal zones of development that are currently at different stages, and each of these zones probably has a different ceiling of mastery. This concept leads us away from thinking globally or one dimensionally about people. We stop labeling them as stupid or deficient because one skill amongst many is underdeveloped or lacking. Space is opened up to see how environmental conditions are contributing to a block in learning. It’s always possible to readjust how information is transmitted in order to reach a student where he or she actually is. While there are different ceilings based on natural abilities, we are all capable of more in many areas of our lives. One of the main reasons for giving up at anything is the frustration that results from not having subject matter presented in a way that we can understand based on our given abilities at that moment.

We can conceptualize learning as a fluid process that builds upon itself. It is best accomplished by continuously increasing the difficulty of the act you are performing to a level that is challenging but doable. This framework helps us see how mastery is gained in any subject. It also shows us why some people give up while others increase their skills and abilities to levels of true excellence. With mastery comes a sense of fulfillment and efficacy. Yet it does not imply that learning stops, because at some point the process will start to feel stale and uneventful unless it has the intrinsic ability to pull us forward and challenge us. We can see that learning is a lifelong process.