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Hacking Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Not relying on adaptive learning software

Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist, built a theory of cognitive development in the 1920s and 1930s, which contends that learning occurs most fluidly and enjoyably around skills, concepts, and challenges that are located in what he termed a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), a zone just beyond what is currently known by the learner, but not too far beyond what is currently known.

Simply put, if school is too easy, kids will become bored, if school is too hard, kids will become frustrated. In both scenarios, dire consequences can ensue such as disruptive behavior, loss of interest, or self-identifying as not smart. On the contrary, if curricular lessons present a compelling challenge deemed achievable by students, they will naturally want to collaborate and find solutions to the posed challenge. Students thereby experience satisfaction in the achievement and confidence in having completed a challenge. In turn, they are eager for the next lesson. Learning is occurring and students are enjoying school!

The key variables in this framework are the teachers, peers, and technology available to the learner as support for learning around the specific lesson.

The big problem is that the next lesson is invariably too easy for some students and too hard for others. It is the classic problem of differentiation. There is no perfect lesson plan, which fits nicely in the ZPD, for any group of learners. So Lev, thanks for the theory, but it is hard to build a learning model around it!

Nonetheless, teachers try. They can break up their class into groups according to academic level and provide tailored guidance for each to ensure the lesson challenge falls within the ZPD for each group. Yet, in practice, without support, the daily preparation and management effort is very difficult.

The personalized learning movement, defined as a classroom model with specific structures in place to systematize the preparation and management of group-based and individual-based learning typically through the incorporation of adaptive learning software, arose to ensure teachers are positioning all of their students in the ZPD.

In fact, technology-supported, personalized learning was crowned the ultimate panacea to the grand, intractable problems in education! Legions of philanthropists poured billions of dollars into the cause, national charter school networks sprung up centered on a personalized learning model, and teachers nationwide adopted it for their classrooms. Imagine every student in every school working happily in their own ZPD eager to finish the current lesson and tackle the next challenge!

Adaptive learning software and video-based tutorials and lectures concomitantly arose and a digital world where the ZPD could conform to each learner was truly born. Lev Vygotsky’s dream was realized! Lev would be proud!

Yet, sadly, upon inspection, he would note a few shortcomings, not the least of which are the national metrics on education suggesting no leap in improvement on academic performance, school engagement, and overall satisfaction with American education, despite the efforts put forth.

Specifically, two problems would immediately become apparent to Lev:

  • Software-based learning is not effective and eliminates the social element, a key component of cognitive development (Source 1, Source 2)

  • There is no context and thereby no framework to capture and channel a child’s natural curiosity towards engaged learning

Even deeper, Vygotsky was instrumental in formulating the Social Constructivist framework of cognitive development which contends robust learning occurs in a contextualized social and cultural framework - our surroundings provide an infinite source of clues as to what is important and what is interesting to learn. Or in contrast, learning in a vacuum is not learning!

Thereby, true skill mastery and knowledge acquisition within the paradigm of social constructivist learning involves synthesizing information from a variety of sources. Adaptive learning apps supporting personalized learning fail to allow for the critical background mosaic of a child’s life to enter the picture.

Curriculum products should layer into the fabric of a child’s life. It should be a set of challenges, offline challenges, which require synthesizing information from a variety of sources, not the least of which is the original data the child creates and the first-hand observations the child makes. (This shouldn't sound radical, but it does!).

Sure, skill-building and practice are important, but it should follow an experience that drives curiosity and interest on the topic, not before.

Both QuantumCamp’s Live Online and Self-Paced Courses do this. Kids do math and science anytime, just for fun. They can email a professional scientist or mathematician anytime and tune into online office hours. Their work and findings can be reviewed by professional educators who provide feedback and nurture academic growth. They are part of a collaborative community of learners worldwide. Courses are broken into a series of challenges, each one of which is compelling and achievable, thereby attaining the objectives of building confidence and facilitating a satisfying learning experience.

This is what we are seeing. Learning is occurring and students are enjoying it!

Lev, I think you would like what we are doing at!

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