I was recently asked -- in one of those great road trip conversations where you're catching up and sharing life and figuring out the universe -- about the rules I live by.  I liked the question so much that I wanted to think about it for a long time, and in pieces.  Until I have a comprehensive list, which I imagine (and hope) will never happen, I will share my rules in this series.

I can explain.

One concept at the core of educational theory is Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. Since learning about this in grad school I have thought about it every day -- partially because it's central to being a teacher, but also because of how I use it as a framework for the rest of my life.

Hang on.  It's about to get pretty nerdy.

The purpose of Vygotsky's research was to explain the relationship between development and learning.  Does development happen first, and then a person is capable of and ready for learning?  Or does learning happen first, and then a person is able to develop as a result?

Vygotsky determined that learning and development are interrelated from the first day of a person's life and reminded the scientific community that the human brain is absurdly more complicated than any previous theory has expounded.  (To reach stratospheric nerd levels, you can read his academic smackdown here.)

Central to Vygotsky's theory is the Zone of Proximal Development, which is basically the sweet spot for learning and development.  The ZPD is somewhere in between what a person already knows/can do alone and what he/she cannot do at all.  It is where teaching should be targeted because it is where learning and development happen.

For a teacher, this recipe for an academically successful and engaged classroom makes sense:  Take what the students know/can do already and push them to what they don't know/can't do.  You build your classroom around the ZPD, and from September to June your curriculum does everything it can to maximize growth.

It's what happens in the ZPD that determines the outcome of learning and development.  The Zone of Proximal Development is about exposure and materials and the help and external motivations a person receives.  In a sense, it's what school does with lessons and activities and projects and rooms full of people.

But I'm not talking about being a teacher or being a student.

I'm talking about me, personally, and a rule by which I try to live my life.  It's a principle that guides my choices and goals.

It's about prioritizing learning and building a life that values personal growth.

It's about being aware and reflective about what I already know, and attempting to discern what I do not.  It's about figuring out where I am in the journey and assessing my own progress and failures.

It's about collaboration.  Those who are present in my ZPD guide me toward the goals.

Awareness of the ZPD pushes the boundaries of imitation and encourages me to try new things, to think creatively, to take chances.

My favorite thing about considering my life in this framework is that it is constantly shifting and evolving, when goals are reached and new sights are set.  I want to always reevaluate, to see how far I've come and how much farther, always farther, I want to go.

(I know how nerdy this is, but this is my head.)  It's curriculum design for my life.  It's asking myself: What is the classroom I want to create?  How will I challenge what I already am, and wherehowwhy do I want to end up?

I fail at this.  I fail often, and sometimes pretty hard.  The anxiety zone comes in many forms.  For all of us.

But that's part of the learning.  It's part of the development.  It's me, trying.


  1. You're such a nerd. I love it. I need to take another look at Vygotsky. I completely glazed over when I read him in school. I miss working with you!

  2. I miss that, too! It's a majorly missed opportunity for epic levels of nerditude.