The zone of proximal development (ZPD): The power of just right

If you’re anything like me, you’re feeling a little ready (okay, a lot ready) for 2020 to be over. Remember how much hope we had in May that school would be back to normal this fall? Yet here we are, with kids in masks at the schools that are open and some form of online learning happening in almost every household in the country.

It feels like every single part of teaching has been affected by COVID-19: How you get to know students at the start of the year. How you interact with colleagues and families. How you evaluate engagement and motivate kids to stay with you. I hope some of the trial and error of the spring has helped you feel more confident in your teaching-in-the-age-of-coronavirus skills.

One area that remains a big challenge for a lot of us is the vital work of knowing where students are in their academic achievement and readiness to learn. For many students, there may be a lot of ground to cover in reading and math. You may feel discouraged about how to help them because the degree of the learning loss can feel so big and like nothing you’ve ever faced before. You’re right, in a way; you’re likely to have more students who have fallen behind in your class this year. But the reality is you’ve always had students who needed your help catching up—and you’ve racked up a lot of success stories along the way.

This post—and a few others we have planned on how the zone of proximal development can aid your efforts—is intended to support you as you face the challenges that lie ahead so you can accelerate student learning and promote catch-up growth. I’m sure knowing how best to help your students is weighing heavily on you right now. My goal is to take some of that weight off your shoulders so that all of this feels much more doable. It’s a lot, but I know you can do it. Let’s get started.

Ready, set, challenge!

Knowing where students are in their learning trajectory is the first step in discovering how to challenge and support them so they can grow and reach grade-level standards, that bar that’s set for all your learners. What do I mean by “challenge”? I’m glad you asked. Challenging students means giving them just-right-for-me learning opportunities.

Think of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. There were porridges of different temperatures, chairs of multiple sizes, and beds of varying degrees of softness. The three bears harnessed the power of knowing what was just right for them to meet their needs for nourishment, comfort, and sleep. Through experimentation in the bears’ home, Goldilocks, too, learned how to become well-fed and well-rested. Whether they wanted to or not (Goldilocks did break in, after all), Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear taught her how to try different things and find her own just-right experience.

Challenging students means giving them just-right-for-me learning opportunities.

While I don’t recommend home invasion as an appropriate learning strategy, I do enthusiastically suggest experimentation with a variety of your own methods and resources. Establishing a student’s zone of proximal development, or ZPD, is a valuable way to determine where to start.

Working from a ZPD can facilitate scaffolding and differentiating instruction in ways that provide just-right and just-in-time supports to increase student access to rich, complex grade-level content. This approach makes the challenging job of supporting all kids toward proficiency in grade-level standards a little easier. It also promotes instructional equity because teacher practice grounded in building a bridge between where a student is (ZPD) and where a student needs to go (mastery of grade-level standards) is all about promoting—rather than denying—access to grade-level content and learning opportunities. This kind of work demands that we both hold high expectations for all students and respond in ways that maximize growth toward mastery.

ZPD defined

By letting you know where they are in their learning, a student’s ZPD can help you move away from an instructional one-size-fits-all approach and toward a time-effective, tailor-made one, with the goal of keeping high expectations and seeing maximized growth for every student relative to grade-level outcomes. You may remember ZPD from your pedagogy or psychology studies. It is a learning theory of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and one of the founding fathers of research in education. He defined ZPD 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.”

ZPD represents the metaphorical gap between what a learner can do and what they can’t do…yet. With the support of what Vygotsky refers to as a more knowledgeable other—a teacher, coach, parent, sibling, peer—learners can engage in increasingly more challenging activities and complex development than they could achieve on their own, without assistance or guidance. This focus on partnership in learning helps students grow academically, and also socially and emotionally, because it fosters building a community of learning.

How do we determine ZPD?

Because students are (ideally) always learning and growing, their ZPD changes over time, so it’s important to determine it often. There are two primary ways to identify a student’s ZPD—classroom assessment and interim assessment—and chances are you’re already doing at least one of them.

1. Classroom assessment

You’re constantly collecting data on student learning and their response to instruction in the classroom through curricular assessments, diagnostics of pre- and post-learning, and formative assessment. Many of these instruments take the form of mastery assessments, in which you measure the percent correct (or level of accuracy) as an indicator of a student’s developmental level (that is, what they can and can’t do).

One way to use mastery assessments to determine ZPD is to set percentage thresholds as assessment triggers that prompt teacher action, in this case, explicitly evaluating if the challenge is just right, the content is appropriate, and additional supports are needed or should be removed. For example, when I taught high school English, I used the following formative assessment triggers during instruction to evaluate students’ challenges and needs:

< 35% correct = content is above ZPD

36­–69% correct = content is in ZPD

> 70% correct = content is below ZPD

When students scored with less than 35% accuracy, I used that as a trigger to evaluate whether my instruction was too challenging or targeted on inappropriate content, and I asked myself whether my scaffolds were supportive enough. When students scored with 36–69% accuracy, I continued with my instructional plan. When students scored with greater than 70% accuracy, I explored removing the supportive scaffolds to see if students continued to progress with greater independence and whether I could adjust the level of challenge, adding additional complexity. When I determined the instruction was above or below the ZPD, I made explicit, proactive adjustments to my plans prior to continuing with instruction. When instruction was in the ZPD, I made real-time adjustments during the instruction based on observational and anecdotal data collected in the moment.

There is no hard and fast rule for setting assessment triggers. This is just an example of what worked for me. Trust your gut and experience when setting your own, or look to your colleagues for support.

2. Interim assessment

When I served as an executive director of curriculum and instruction in a school district in North Carolina, I was looking for an innovative and efficient way to universally screen all K–10 students and provide teachers insights to help them plan instruction supportive of individual student learning needs. MAP® Growth™ fit the bill.

ZPD represents the metaphorical gap between what a learner can do and what they can’t do…yet.

Using students’ instructional goal area scores and the MAP Growth Learning Continuum, teachers can evaluate whether a grade-level standard of instruction is likely in a student’s ZPD and determine if unfinished or advanced learning needs must be addressed prior to, during, or after planned instruction in order to maximize productive struggle and academic growth for all. The goal is to always give all students access to grade-level content; the Learning Continuum lets you know when you might need to scaffold up so all kids can stay motivated to learn.

If you’re already a MAP Growth user, you can access the complimentary e-learning Key Reports for Teachers in the help tab of the MAP Growth reporting site and in Professional Learning Online, a complimentary asynchronous learning system, to find out more about using student scores and the Learning Continuum to inform responsive planning for instruction.

Using ZPD to scaffold instruction

You now know what ZPD is and how to figure it out for each of your students. What’s next? Looking to ZPD to scaffold your instruction and support your students. I’ll dig into that—including special considerations for reading/ELA, content area reading, math, and doing all this during COVID-19 distance learning—in my next post. Stay tuned!

This is the first post in a series on using ZPD to inform instruction.

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