Taking children’s questions seriously

Last week, writing about Amelie’s question as to whether flat and level were the same thing, I slipped in a shorthand phrase that probably meant little to many of you – I spoke of the Zone of Proximal Development.  I need to explain this.

In the most general sense the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know – it’s a building-up process, one layer being laid carefully on an earlier layer.  “Constructivism” owes much to the remarkable thinking of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky, who came up with the term Zone of Proximal Development.  It refers to that gap between what a child can learn through their own experience (normal development) and what they could learn when working collaboratively with a more experienced person.

It all depends on getting the timing for a new idea right.  At an early age I saw the reality of the blacksmith picking up a bit of metal (the most solid substance my mind could comprehend) heating it up until his practiced eye detected a slight change in its colour, whereupon he struck it with such a mighty blow that it changed its shape as if it were plasticine.  The skill of the blacksmith to ‘strike while the iron is hot’ is comparable to the good teacher knowing the exact moment when a child is ready for such a ‘shape-changing’ moment – the cognitive equivalent of the Zone of Proximal Development.

What is important is to recognise that what a child can do with the assistance of others is even more indicative of their future mental development, than what they can do alone.  What a child can perform together with assistance becomes what he or she will probably be able to perform independently at a later stage.

When a teacher or parent is able to build, with the child, a new level of understanding, this effectively ‘lifts’ the child to a new sense of mastery and exploration.  However, I paid the price this last evening when Amelie came up with another question: “What number comes after the last number?”  Trying to describe infinity and eternity I simply floundered!

See Action 1 of Briefing Paper and Chapter 2 “The Wonder of Learning” from Overschooled but Undereducated