The Zone of Proximal Development


This past January I began cycling so that I could spend more quality time with my husband. However, over the last nine months, it has become my hobby as well. In my riding over the last few weeks, I've become more of a believer in the Zone of Proximal Development and its impact on the learning process. 

Ride Type #1 | The Senior Stroll

This summer I joined a cycling club full of retired men (and a few women) who go for a ride most days of the week, always ensuring the route stops at multiple bathroom and a coffee shop. Although some of these groups pushed me more than I like to admit, I went on a few rides that were painfully slow. I found myself having to work to not pedal, and at one point was driven crazy by a rider who insisted on stopping at every. single. stop sign... even those on deserted residential roads. I found myself bored and impatient.

Elevation Gain on Metcalf Rd. - I walked up this hill in tears.

Elevation Gain on Metcalf Rd. - I walked up this hill in tears.

Ride Type #2 | Death Hills

I like to think I'm a pretty physically fit person. I have been known to run half marathons. I consistently work out. I've always like athletics. Yet, the moment that I see a hill, my body forgets how to breathe.  My husband, on the other hand, is also a mountain biker. Not only do hills not scare him, he thinks they're fun. Sometimes our routes find us on large, never-ending hills, and I shut down. There are tears, and I can't go on. It's just too much.

The Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development

Ride Type #3 | The Zone of Proximal Development

But there's another kind of ride that I love. It has sections of flats, but it also has some awesome rollers. I find myself having to work hard to get up hills, and one or two may even be a few minutes longer than I like. However, despite the challenge, they feel (and look) possible. And afterwards, I'm able to go down and coast a little before powering back up for the next hill. I leave these rides feeling like I've worked out and like I'm awesome because I conquered it. 

As I was riding my favorite ZPD ride last weekend from San Jose to Morgan Hill, I realized how this is the same for the learners in my classroom. Students sometimes experience those bored-out-of-their-minds classes that are too easy for them. Here they often become irritable. Other times, students are trying to attain what they view is unattainable, like I feel on hills. They're apt to shut down, unable to move on. Our goal as educators then, is to scaffold to get them into that ZPD. Yes, I realize this is precisely what you learned in your credential program, but it's way different when you're the one experiencing it. 

Here are a few other realizations from that process: 

Sometimes we need to let students set the learning pace. When I'm cycling hills, even in my ZPD, I like to be in the lead. This makes it so I don't have the pressure of keeping up with the person in front of me before I have the skills and the confidence to do so. As a less-experienced learner, it is empowering to set the pace so that you don't feel guilt/shame for not keeping up. 

Sometimes we need to lead students to the learning. In cycling, following closely behind the person in front of you makes the journey so much easier because the person in front of you is breaking the wind. This is known as drafting. There are many times where I am pulled along by the rider in front of me as they set the pace and break the wind. As educators, we sometimes need to break the wind of outside distractions and model for students pace & setting one foot in front of the other. 

We need to help students work on metacognition. The previous two points are pretty much in direct opposition. Even as an adult, I need to work to understand which one of these I need in the moment, and I need to work to communicate those needs to those I'm riding with. There is important non-curricular work in teaching students to identify and communicate their needs in the learning process.