One of the first things educators learn about in their quest to become teachers is the zone of proximal development – the “just right” conditions for learning to take place. Just like Goldilocks, if something is too easy or too hard, a student is not likely to fully engage in learning. It’s only when it’s “just right” and the student needs some guidance to achieve his or her goals that the student becomes curious, interested and most able to accept a learning challenge.
Though this is a known and well-developed theory of learning, schools tend to focus on outcomes, not the process through which outcomes are achieved. Educators are pressured by every constituency involved in schools to be the very best and make sure all children achieve the same things on the exact same timeline. To do otherwise is perceived as a failure. The problem with this approach is that we know, from living our own very different lives, that we all have learned every fact and every skill on our own personal timeline, with varying amounts of support along the way. One thing may come easily to us, and another skill may be much more difficult to attain.
Schools have many jobs to do – the most important is to care for and preserve the learners who enter their doors each day. To do this, educators must help children, parents and others understand more about how learning takes place. We must be thoughtful observers. We must know more than the content of the “grades” we teach, for we are not teaching content or grades. We are teaching children and learning alongside them to determine how to best meet them where they are and take them where they need to go. The path may be smooth and straight or it may be windy and a bit bumpy, but the path is the child’s path. Our job is to help to make it “just right” for each of them and let them find their way toward their goals.