Some well-meaning folks, upon finding out that I am a homeschool mom with my bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, tease that I must have it easy because I already know what to do! Actually, in most cases, I find that in order to homeschool my children well, I have to unteach myself a lot of what I learned in college! Teaching individual, beloved children in a home setting looks very little like the situation I was prepared for through college. However, there are a few “big idea” college concepts that do serve me well as a mother. One of them is called Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and it serves me in two equal, but opposite ways.
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who worked with children in the early 20th century. His theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is really a simple concept: children know some things. They do not know other things. Children need a bridge to help them get from what they already know, to what they do not know.
The ZPD is basically that bridge between what they already know, to what they cannot know on their own. The most natural and effective teaching and learning happens in the ZPD, and a teacher (or parent or mentor or book) should provide “scaffolding” to allow a student (or child or peer or reader) to pass through the zone to the other side, always adjusting to a new zone, so to speak, as new knowledge is acquired.
I love this analysis of learning! As a homeschool mom, it helps me assess my children’s learning—where are they? Where do I want them to be? And how can I help them get there? For our family, a lot of that is done through books and curricula. The rest of it is done with me or my husband as instructor. The theory of ZPD serves our family in the sense that it can encourage both the depth of independent student learning in some subject matter, as well as breadth of multi-age groupings in other subjects. Let me explain further.
I especially appreciate the ZPD when it comes to independent learning in math and language. My kindergartner may have her basic math facts memorized, but she could not, without help, learn to add two two-digit numbers to one another. I need to work with her, alone, as she crosses the bridge of the ZPD. She can not “discovery-learn” regrouping! She needs someone older than she is, or a book, to help her learn this process. Likewise, my 3rd grader knows his parts of speech, but would never accidentally place them correctly onto a sentence diagram without my help. It takes a mentor or a book to guide him through the zone from what he already knows to what he could not figure out on his own. These subjects are the subjects that I spend the bulk of my hours teaching children independently (and later, allowing the curriculum I have chosen teach it to them once they are proficient readers). It would not make sense for me to teach my kindergartener and 3rd grader math and language together, because they both have very different zones of development in these subjects. They need me to start where they are and take them over the bridge, and since they don’t both have the same starting knowledge, I work with them separately.
However, the ZPD theory does not encourage only independent study; it can also support a parent’s desire to group children together in certain subjects if their children’s ZPD is the same. For instance, my older daughters are only 18 months apart. I started teaching them formal language lessons together when they were 6 and 5. They have passed through eight grades of grammar together, simply because they both had the same ZPD. Likewise, my husband has taught several of our children together in Latin. Although the oldest two started together and progressed through one year of material, the third child was able to join the following year because my husband taught him individually in the summer. Since most information presented in science and history classes is new, most of my children have the same ZPD for these subjects. This makes it easy to provide the same “scaffolding” for them all to cross the bridge from the known to the unknown together.
As a mother and as an educator, I find the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development helpful as I consider what my children already know, what goals I have for them that they do not yet know, and the means of getting them from one to the other. It is an incredible blessing to have the option of homeschooling my children, where it is possible to consider each individual child’s ZPD, and to choose if it would be best to help them over that bridge individually or with their siblings, rather than teach in a classroom, where I would have to guess at a collective ZPD and herd the students over the bridge together, hoping none falls off!
Marie K. MacPherson is wife to Ryan, homeschooling mother of six, and child of God. She is the author of the devotion book Meditations on the Vocation of Motherhood (2018), and editor of Mothering Many: Sanity-Saving Strategies (2016). A certified Classical teacher from CCLE and Elementary Education graduate of Bethany Lutheran College, she enjoys researching and writing in her free time.