Do We Learn As Our Students Learn?

EE Research Image 2

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these processes are internalized, they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement.
– Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky continued, “. . . (f)rom this point of view, learning is not development; however, properly organized learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental processes that would be impossible apart from learning. Thus, learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human, psychological functions.”

I-bluet is the words, “properly organized learning,” that are key here; at least to me. When we initiate new learning by asking a question of objects in the world, we set in motion a set of processes which heighten our awareness of the world outside our bodies (parietal lobes), set up working memory to deal with what we find out (prefrontal cortex), tie relevant memories to the objects outside and working memory inside (associative cortex), and heighten our awareness, interest, and excitement about the new learning (limbic system). We are ready to absorb new learnings; others’ thoughts influence ours, and we incorporate learnings we may have been ready for, but hadn’t achieved; and, altogether, move to a higher and broader developmental level. When we use care and insight in planning the delivery of our curricula, we directly influence our students’ development in a positive way.

Fine words, but how do we go about it? Let’s start with something familiar, students working in groups. The work they will do is organized around vegetation mapping along a new path the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) is developing to connect two relatively natural areas within your school’s boundaries. The school has been notified about the project, and has been offered a BES liaison if teachers are interested in using the project to engage students in their community. (Interesting how such a sensible project is alienated from most people’s concept of school.)

You decide to contact BES and meet with its liaison. Let’s see how this might pan out. Hopefully, in a developmental way. The class will set up vegetation mapping as the thing they’ll do. You tell the liaison the class will all go out and map the site together. The liaison suggests BES does it with crews in particular areas. You’re not quite ready for this, so agree to start with the whole class working together, then build in groups as you become familiar with the work. The idea of groups does ring a bell, and you decide that, when you do organize the class this way, you will call them, “crews.” While you’re not working in groups yet, you have taken that first step – visualizing what it might be. That’s developmental.

The BES liaison asks you how much experience you have in mapping, and you reply, a little nervous, “None.” She seems pleased with that, and says that a good way to start is to lay out a simple grid, and use that to organize your mapping. Talking about doing this, you both decide to organize the grid with one axis parallel to the path. Then, you’ll label units on that axis with letters, and the other axis, stretching away from the path, with numbers. You and the liaison pause to talk about what the students will be doing within the grid. Then, at your request and her hint, you decide that, over the next two years, the class will move from the physical grid laid out with stakes and twine, to one designed with compasses and tape measures. The project covers two years, and you can continue working there after that, if you wish.

Now you feel comfortable enough to let your class in on the plan. You’ve also, with the liaison’s help, moved through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. You brought with you all of your previous knowledge and intuitions about learning, lined them up at the threshold for fully engaging this new way of teaching, then talking with and being quietly coached by the BES liaison, crossed the threshold (Vygotsky’s zone), and entered a world broadened by your new understandings, vision, potential, and capacity. You could have made this journey on your own, but it would take longer, and might have become discouraging. Instead, you entered this new place as if it had always been there. The catalyst was the liaison mentioning “crews,” and your previous experiences and understandings about the relationship between groups, the structure of work, and the dynamic which exists between the two. This new, incipient capacity is now part of who you are; one of the ways in which our professional lives evolve.

(The process was facilitated in part by your brain, its parietal lobes, prefrontal cortex, associative cortex, and limbic system. We talk about the structure which underlies teaching and learning – inductive:deductive, hierarchy of cognitive function, science concepts, science processes, etc. These are important to know, understand, and use. I say that it is also important to understand the brain’s role in these processes. The brain is the organ of learning; the brain working together in partnership with the rest of the body. All have evolved as a wonderful, autonomous learning machine. Don’t shy away from it.)

On to the project. When they hit the ground, and you observe them in action, groups seem more real and realistic to use. In the end, you decide on groups, or “crews;” next year, working with compass and tape measure. And you also begin to recognize the work’s potential for the mathematics embedded in it. You hadn’t considered mathematics until you saw the grid going up, students making measurements, and problems they had locating various trees and shrubs. When they finished laying out the grid, you began working with the embedded mathematics by having them calculate the surface area defined by one cell in the grid, then extrapolate from that to the project’s total surface area.

Next, you ask the groups to describe the plants in each cell of the matrix, and to map their location within the cell. As they work, they learn to identify plants, check their biologies, and recommend further plantings. You’re on your way. In future, your eyes will be on planting, with mapping the first step. Eventually, you might cross the threshold to restoration.

The following summer, when your mind is fully functioning again, you return to your transition from classroom teacher to classroom teacher who uses the world outside the school for context and curricula, and begin to see how it was like the transformation described by Lev Vygotsky that you’d read about years ago. You were ready for the new learning, had all of the pieces together in your mind, but needed a small catalyst to bring them together in a developmental whole. This, and the way students became more involved and invested in their learnings as they began to develop into effective work groups. Could they have also been entering, and moving through, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development? Would they have experienced it if they had remained in the classroom? How do you find out?

Ultimately, you realize that you needed to recognize that zone first, and understand its potential. Understanding that, you think you can exploit its potential in any environment. And, you think you might explore this next year. How might this play out in a developmental way? How might you use this with your class? Your crews? Think about how you felt as you moved through the zone, and visualize how this might be felt by your students. These insights are as important to effective teaching as knowing and understanding content. It is that person moving through the zone that we are teaching. Not a name or classroom seat, but an actively developing, becoming, person. We play a huge role in those lives.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”