Let Learners Get in Their Zone (of Proximal Development)

Personalized Learning

Let Learners Get in Their Zone (of Proximal Development)

By Marisa Busch     Aug 1, 2017

Let Learners Get in Their Zone (of Proximal Development)

This article is part of the collection: The Personalized Learning Toolkit.

“Personalized learning” is a term that people take quite personally—and that leads to a variety of interpretations about what it means. That’s a problem, says John Reyes, director of educational technology for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The lack of precision about what the term means—whether it’s about tailoring instruction for individual students or the technology that enables it—leads to confusion and inappropriate assumptions. “As long as we struggle to define it, some people will continue to see only the surface (the technology). If we’re okay with that soft definition, it will harm students,” he says.

Reyes recognizes that personalized learning overlaps with a number of long established instructional philosophies, frameworks and practices. So rather than reinvent the wheel and conjure up a new definition, he looks to the past at a concept that precedes the technology used in classrooms today: The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The idea was introduced by psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s to describe the space between what a learner can do independently, and what he or she can do with support.

“It’s the Goldilocks of cognitive challenge for students—you don’t want it too hot, you don’t want it too cold, you want it just right,” explains Reyes. “If we’re able to scaffold through prior knowledge, the structure of the activity and the timeframe, then we’re able to hit the cognitive sweet spot.”

Reyes isn’t the only one to raise the connection between ZPD and personalized learning—the term seemed to resonate with teachers during a recent iNACOL survey and multiple attendees at the Los Angeles EdSurge Tech Leaders Circle mentioned it conversations as they shared about what personalized learning means for them.

So where do these two ideas converge and what does it take for a teacher to help a learner find his or her zone of proximal development?

Helping Learners Find Their ZPD

Understanding what “tailoring instruction” means and what it takes to make it happen is critical when implementing a personalized learning model. For Reyes, it’s about using purposeful groupings, choosing relevant instructional materials and modifying content to align with learning interests and needs. But just because each student has different needs does not mean that educators should move the goal post. He warns that differentiating expectations rather than supports maintains or exacerbates the opportunity gap.

Figuring out which supports are the right fit for every student is no easy feat—especially for educators who teach upwards of 100 students each week. And even if a teacher is able to figure out exactly which supports each student needs, finding the time to compile and modify existing materials and, in many cases, build them from scratch, is near impossible.

Historically, the greatest challenge with scaling differentiated instruction to meet the needs of every student has been the time it takes to find the right materials and give frequent, targeted feedback. Class sizes grow and teacher time, the most valuable currency in schools, shrinks. Technology is making it possible to do this in a shorter period of time and that is exciting for many practitioners.

Technology can enable teachers to individualize instruction, or meet students in their ZPD, more efficiently. Reyes explains that some tools provide teachers the ability to assess, drill down, identify where support is needed. Others embed scaffolds like comprehension checks and frequent feedback, and can even help organize and schedule groupings. Some adaptive programs, he says, are so good at scaffolding that they can help teachers begin to close some gaps.

Analog Vs. Digital Personalized Learning Experiences

Matthew Peskay, Chief of Innovation and Technology at KIPP LA Schools, says one of the network’s three regional priorities is meeting the needs of every KIPPster. He notes that KIPP LA doesn’t have a unified, regional approach to personalized learning that some other charter management organizations have, so implementation varies across the network’s 14 schools. “But we try to ensure that from a regional perspective, we’re empowering teachers to make teaching and learning decisions within their classrooms and schools, and that we’re providing them with everything they need to deliver personalized learning experiences—whether those be analog or tech enabled.”

“When I think of strong classroom I think of a flex model—whole group, small group, individual work and 1:1 talks with a teacher,” Peskay explains. In an ideal situation, every student has his or her own teacher all day long, and that teacher is the best fit for that student. “In the confines we operate within, we’re trying to get as close to that as possible. But we need to find ways to enable teachers that need to know 100 students.”

Peskay says engagement is a critical factor of personalization and that it must be distinguished from entertainment. Entertainment relates more to interest, which he says is important. But engagement goes beyond “talking about football or gardening, and relates to meeting kids in their zone.”

Digital personal learning experiences rely on technology tools that keep students engaged by meeting them in their ZPD. These tools can also provide teachers with valuable insights into the different needs of all students, and can loosen up teacher time, allowing for meaningful 1:1 conference time with students. Peskay hypothesizes that as artificial intelligence improves, so too will the ability of edtech tools to make adaptive choices for learners based on strong relational data.

Regardless of whether the learning experience is digital or analog, keeping learners in their zone of proximal development is key for Peskay. He references a graphic with three concentric circles when describing Vygotsky’s concept. “There’s the comfort zone at the center, and then the growth zone and on the outside there is panic.” That growth zone is where he wants to see students spend most of their time.

Over the past few years, Peskay explains that use of the term ZPD has decreased and there has been an uptick on Angela Duckworth’s ideas on grit and Carol Dweck’s beliefs about growth mindset. But he says they’re all related. “I could see it shift over time. In a few years, it might be the zone of grit,” he speculates.

Uppercase PL and lowercase pl

Ashley Dann, Program Coordinator of the Innovations in Digital Education and Leadership (iDEAL) Institute at Loyola Marymount University considers the lack of precision around defining personalized learning is a pedantic issue. “I think of it as lowercase pl and uppercase PL.” Dann says lowercase pl is learning that meets the needs of each individual student. “It’s just good teaching—making sure you’re meeting the needs of your students.”

Uppercase PL, in her words, is about using adaptive software to meet the same needs. It’s about assessment, response, and progress at an appropriate pace with content that is appropriate for the learner—and today there are some tech tools out there that can help. Though they’re related, for Dann, the fundamental concept doesn’t necessarily rely on tech.

“Do I believe that tech is the only way to reach these needs? I’m not sure yet— I haven’t seen the magical app that puts everyone on a beautiful RTI [response to intervention] structure,” she says. “There is so much on our plate. With millions of IEP and 504 plans, it’s becoming impossible to be the teacher you need to be.” Dann suggests that people are obsessed with the idea of technology because they realize the task is so great and it’s not possible to achieve it any other way.

It’s easy to say personalized learning isn’t new. But it’s undeniably garnering the attention of a wide audience, expanding beyond the typical educational community of school leaders and educators, to reach entrepreneurs, funders and business leaders.

Peskay suspects it’s an issue of supply and demand. “We’ve always known what kids need and haven’t been able to deliver it.” Tech is changing that, and Peskay believes that as we leverage all of the resources at our disposal, we’ll continue to get better at it.

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