How many of us have learned about the Zone of Proximal Developent (the ZPD) when learning how to teach our young learners? I’ve written about this in earlier blog posts, in relation to how we teachers can best decide on what material to teach our young learners. However, as a college teacher, I’m realizing more and more that the ZPD is just as applicable to our older learners. For instance, I spend a good part of my lessons convincing my students that they don’t really have to follow the English textbook (in Dutch fittingly called the “method”) when they teach their classes. In fact, I often encourage them to write lessons of their own, based on the interests and language level of their classes. The game of Minecraft, Disney’s Frozen, dinosaurs, it’s all fair play in the world of ESL as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve gotten used to the incredulous reactions of my students when I tell them to “try it, they’ll like it,” feeling every bit the Sam I Am in Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. “Will you try this here or there?” I ask, and slowly but surely the students start to catch on to the excitement of trying out something they’ve never done before. When needed, I scaffold their learning by giving ideas, working them out and providing search terms. I encourage them to play, experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and most importantly to try again. I remind them of the rule of three: the first time one tries anything new, it’s a mess as the children struggle to learn the content and the new game at the same time. The second time, the children have a better idea of how the game works, and the third time, the children know the way of the road and can concentrate on the content.
As students start to navigate the roads of experimenting and teaching, they start to grow in confidence, and I follow along, ready to encourage them to move into the next zone of development, be that CLIL, using children’s literature in the lessons, or incorporating yet another new game into their teaching.
For myself, I realize that the ZPD is an ongoing development. Not just for the young learners, and not just for my students, but also for me, an experienced ESL teacher. New levels of development continue to reveal themselves to me a step at a time as I develop in my own teaching. I keep that in mind while coaching my students, remembering that learning new things requires learners to let something else go. They need to make a leap of faith, and I need to be there to catch them. That’s what learning is all about: letting go, making that jump, trusting that one will be caught before the landing goes wrong. It’s about making space for a certain amount of play: practicing something “for pretend,” before having to go out there and do it “for real.” Sometimes, it’s a bit of a trick, getting students to understand the parallel between the lessons they follow and the lessons they teach, but on occassion I see one of them light up and I know they “get” it and how they can apply that learning in their own teaching.
It’s a humbling realization, I think, that we’re all learners, with our own ZPD to move into from time to time. May we never stop growing and learning!