Course Reflection: EDU 6132 – Learners in Context

3. Differentiation – The teacher acquires and uses specific knowledge about students’ cultural, individual intellectual and social development and uses that knowledge to adjust their practice by employing strategies that advance student learning.

I’ve spent summer chasing a bright thread through all these theories.  Piaget called it “cognitive conflict,” information processing theory urges educators to orient students within their “current semantic networks,” and Vygotsky has named it the “Zone of Proximal Development.”  While stage theory, information processing theory, and Vygotsky’s Sociocultural theory each emphasize their own favorite aspects, they all agree that students need to be challenged appropriately.  Visit any childcare provider and you’ll likely see the same principle at work – adults teaching a child to walk will often place a toy just beyond his current reach, to motivate his development.  Oddly enough, you might not see principle at work in schools; students are often bored by work too easy, or frustrated by instruction or assignments they can’t begin to understand.

I arrived at Learners in Context with three years of experience in schools under my belt.  Much like the hypothetical day care provider, I had the intuitive sense that kids are motivated toward progress when they can see that the goal is just beyond their current reach.  However, looking back on my work as a paraeducator, I often neglected to consider what precise amount of support would be most motivating for my student; I was more concerned with what made the most sense on my side of the interaction.  I know from personal experience that while the concept of ZPD makes so much sense it feels intuitive, it isn’t necessarily easy to use.  Pressley and McCormick (2007) have pointed out, “Scaffolding demands much of teachers, and for teachers to work that hard, they must care about their students” (p. 166).

I have always made it a point of honor to care about my students, but Vygotsky’s interactive apprenticeship model, which emphasizes modeling, coaching, and scaffolding, invites me to a more precise and deliberate type of caring.  While the sociocultural learning theory clearly emphasizes student-teacher interaction, this theory requires a teacher to facilitate her students’ interactions with the content, not with herself.  This means that what I can do in 55 minutes is not as important as identifying what students can do in that time.  When I design lessons, student progress toward the next cognitive post must be paramount.  I’ll need to systematically assess student understanding, so that I will know what that next post is, and what types of models, prompts, or cues will help students struggle toward it.  I’ll also have to keep in mind that sometimes the best thing for a student is for their caring guide to decrease or remove support.

Pressely, M., & McCormick, C. B. (2007). Child and adolescent development for educators. New York, NY: Guilford Press.



Cognitive Development and Instructional Practice: Two Big Ideas

Every student’s development impacts their learning, so awareness of development needs to inform classroom practice.  I’ll focus on two big ideas I’ve encountered over the last four weeks, and the ways in which each will impact my instructional style.

The first big idea I’ll examine comes from Jean Piaget, whose insights are helping me put some useful name tags on some of the behaviors I’ve observed in middle school classrooms over the last three years.  I’ve often seen students’ frustration upon their introduction to new (or sometimes old) concepts that do not match their present way of thinking. Piaget calls this disequilibrium, which is more technically defined as “the realization that two ways of thinking about the world contradict each other, and thus both can’t be true” (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 67).  A student experiencing disequilibrium, to a certain degree will be motivated to resolve this perceived conflict via accommodation, Piaget’s term for the modification of existing cognitive structures in response to environmental stimuli (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 90).  When the new structure is accommodated, the student achieves a new and more sophisticated equilibrium.  This cycle of disequilibrium and equilibration is a central and repetitive aspect of every student’s progress toward their potential.

I hope to plan and execute an English Language Arts curriculum that invites students to confront the uncomfortable distance between what they thought was true and what they’re trying to understand.  By offering activities that are just beyond their present reach, I’ll aim to spark a healthy rhythm of cognitive conflict through which more and more sophisticated levels of equilibrium are attained.  This kind of planning will require me to know where my students are so that I can meet them there – what misconceptions can be pointed out in order to facilitate movement toward a new level of competence?  Knowledge of the “big ideas” in cognitive development can only get a teacher so far without considerate and astute knowledge of the students she teaches.

A second big idea I’d like to address is the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge.  Pressley and McCormick (2007) point out that “All procedural knowledge starts as declarative knowledge” (p. 107), which will be a guiding factor in coaching students in their writing.

The writing process is definitively procedural: pre-writing, drafting, editing, revising… But each step of the process (and each feature of the essay) constitutes a concept, a piece of declarative knowledge.  As a teacher, I’ll need to strategically distinguish concept from procedure, at least in my own planning, to facilitate proceduralization, the process by which declarative knowledge becomes procedural (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 107).  I’ll build units that introduce concepts, and then gradually – through explanation, modeling and guided practice – coach students toward increased procedural knowledge of writing.

Pressely, M., & McCormick, C. B. (2007). Child and adolescent development for educators. New York, NY:Guilford Press.