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.