Category Archives: Philosophy

Who Is In Your Zone of Proximal Development?

The concept of the zone of proximal development comes from the work of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) a Russian developmental psychologist whose research into how children learn has gained significant attention in recent years. Vygotsky felt that we should not limit our assessment of a child’s development to what they are capable of at present, but rather what they are able to do in collaboration with an adult or more able peer. “The zone of proximal development has more significance for the dynamics of intellectual development and for the success of instruction than does the actual level of development” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 209). Vygotsky goes on to qualify this statement by saying that while a child can always do more in collaboration than he can do independently, “he cannot do infinitely more” (p.209) meaning if you’re not developmentally ready, you can be shown a dozen ways to solve a differential equation, but you still may not get it. While age groupings in classrooms make an attempt to gather together children who are at a similar developmental level to facilitate learning within that zone, the diversity within those spaces can mean that we are not always able to see what our students are capable of, especially if we are simply checking to see if they have achieved the learning outcomes that have been set out. Thus the concern that many gifted students do not have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Broadly viewed, there is much that occurs within the zone of proximal development that goes well beyond learning new math equations. Doolittle (1997) tells us that Vygotsky viewed it as an “interdependent social system in which cultural meanings are actively constructed” (p. 88) which perhaps makes it the most influential realm of role models, despite the importance often placed on role models who are well outside our “zone”. Whether at school, at home, arenas or performance halls, we are surrounded by individuals who not only help us shape the reality we find ourselves in but assist us in accomplishing more than we may have been able to on our own.

As a teacher, I am often inclined to think about the zone of proximal development as the learning space within my classroom, but on any given day, students may spend more one on one time with connections they have found through social media and online sharing platforms (vlogs, podcasts, blogs, Netflix and Youtube channels) than with other children  I have been amazed by how much children I know have learned through videos and websites, expanding their opportunities to learn in ways that we could not have expected even a decade ago.  I don’t think Vygotsky could have imagined this when he formulated his theory in the post-revolution Soviet Union.  How is culture being shaped in this ever-expanding network of connections? What new responsibilities do we have as more able peers or adults in both the physical and virtual spaces? The possibilities are both exciting and worrisome.

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn (1930-2009) has been quoted as saying “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  When this quote was shared with me by a young university student this past summer, he recounted how when he first heard it he interpreted it as a cautionary note around the careful selection of friends. Over time he realized that it was also a call to become someone who could “raise the average” in his own circle of influence through becoming his best person. The ensuing discussion was an amazing voyage through the research and personal development he was doing toward that end leaving me to consider how to bring this ethic not just to my classroom, but to all the “zones” I find myself in.

Click here to find some other perspectives on role models.


Doolittle, P.E. (1997). Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development as a theoretical foundation for cooperative learning. Journal on excellence in college teaching, 8(1), 83-103.

Vygotskiĭ, L. S., Rieber, R. W., & Carton, A. (1987). The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky. New York: Plenum Press.



Schooling in an Imperfect World

There’s this interesting paradox that I live out and I am not the only one. In as much as I see some fundamental flaws in how we educate, I just spent the last month, half of my summer break, in school. Going to school to figure out how to fix/improve schooling.  It sounds a little like going to war to end war. But I was not alone. I spent many hours discussing the many ways in which the education system is struggling with other graduate students, each with our own particular set of lenses set on a particular question or problem that has caught our attention. And paying for the privilege. Of schooling. So, what did we figure out? Nothing really. Yet. But I do have some great questions to consider.

Why are schools great places for some and not for others? I believe it was Mark Twain who said that he never let school get in the way of his education and while many have interpreted that to mean that he didn’t like schools, I think the delineation speaks to something fundamental in how we think about learning and the places we go to get educated. What if we thought of schools as places where we have the opportunity to learn as opposed to places where we are expected to meet particular outcomes? If we think of them as places that open the world to us as opposed to places that impose a world on us? Could a simple shift in our perspective make a difference or is there more to it?

One of the things that has fascinated me about so many of the gifted students that I have the privilege of working with is that they don’t let school get in the way. If they are interested in something, they go out and learn everything they can about it. If they have a particular talent, they spend hours developing it. Certainly there are times when in school they are being taught things that they have already learned, but even then there are some who find ways to take what they already know in unexpected directions. There’s nothing I enjoy more than when they share their escapades into the wide world of information and ideas with me. What is it that has allowed them to keep the “schooling” part of their education in perspective?

Because for others school is clearly getting in the way. Whether it stems from being misunderstood, frustrated by the lack of flexibility and meaningful work or struggling in social situations, school appears to be interfering with what is needed in order for some to feel like a successful learners. Sometimes it’s the pressure of proving or conforming to specific outcomes that feel unattainable or irrelevant. Other times it’s the inability to engage with material that does not seem pertinent to one’s own experience or level of expertise. My heart aches as they struggle. What would allow these students to keep the “schooling” part of their education in perspective?

What keeps me going back to school even when I know the system, like many others in our world, isn’t perfect? I love the dialogue that includes healthy debate around issues that are close to each of our hearts that helps me see other ways of being in the world. I love the stories that we share that help me to understand the diversity of our experiences and how they shape who we are. I love the challenge of trying to understand where my own questions come from and the best way to go about exploring them in a methodical and ethical way. I love discovering theorists and scholars who have explored the outer reaches of their own worlds to see what they could add to the story of why we are all here. It’s living in an imperfect world that drives me to keep learning and figuring out what it is that I can offer. Maybe it’s not a perfect system that we need. Maybe what we need is the unfailing belief in ourselves and others that we each have something to offer. If you’re looking for other perspectives on perfect worlds you might try clicking here or on the icon below!


The One Thing I Wish I Had Known Before I Began This Crazy Journey

On one of the whiteboards in my classroom I have a schedule for the day. It keeps me on track and helps my some of my more anxious students prepare for what’s coming next. Aspects of the agenda change but some are constant, like the second to last item which is the time in the day that I set aside to “Honor the Spirit” where I acknowledge each of my students (and sometimes collectively) for the virtues that I saw in them that day. It used to be the last thing on the agenda but on some of those crazy days that end with a boisterous activity or intense game, it would get lost somewhere between cleaning up and getting out of the door on time. It has become too important to forget.

I wish I had known years ago how important it is to honor the spirit in my students every single day. These are the moments when the wounds and successes of the day are mediated through a lens that looks beyond the failures and accomplishments to the spirit of the student who in an act of courage, comes to school each day. While it is preferable to honor the spirit in those teachable moments, opening a space near the end of the day means it doesn’t get forgotten. It is an opportunity to let them know that no matter what has happened over the course of the day, that they have been seen in a meaningful way and that their presence matters and is valued. It is especially important on those days when it is the hardest to do as it opens the door to forgiveness and hope and in that process invites courage to accompany us on to new possibilities in the coming days.

My heart aches for the years that passed when I did not fully appreciate the importance of the practice of honoring the spirit. In as much as I wish I acknowledged far more students much more regularly for their gifts of character, I am saddened by how I didn’t know how the practice would enrich me, my view of the world and my own spirit. You see, when you authentically honor the spirit in others each day, you finish the day with an overwhelming sense of gratitude which allows you to appreciate and celebrate life as it unfolds whether through trials or small graces. I have taken to telling people I have the best job in the world and it is not only those moments when I take the time to see and acknowledge the virtues in my students that make it so, it is also the sense of belonging and community that emerge out of making it a daily practice.

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Anxious about the future? Exploring the past might help.

I have always loved stories about Robin Hood. I watched every movie that came out, read every version of the book I could find; even took up archery. I don’t know what I loved more, the humour in the stories or the clever ways with which Robin always managed to get the best of Sheriff of Nottingham. Either way, the underlying theme of justice and fairness in the various versions of these folktales spoke to me and have very likely permeated my worldview with respect to how I view wealth, power and oppression.

So it was quite a pleasant surprise this summer when hiking up to the Trifels castle above Durnstein, Austria, I discovered that this was the place where Richard the Lionheart was held for ransom by King Leopold V around 1193-94, the era from which the Robin Hood stories emerge. The view of the Danube from the top of the hill was beautiful and for a moment I was able to transport myself back in time and imagine I was seeing the world through King Richard’s eyes. Would captivity have made him immune to the beauty of the place? A song he wrote at the time might give us the impression that he was.

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As I made my descent back down the worn steps on the steep face of the hill, I was struck by the permanence of the rock and the fleetingness of life and wondered how many people had made their way up and down the pathway over the centuries: royalty, clergy, soldiers, peasants, merchants, slaves…tourists? Did their breath catch in their chest as the trees parted to expose another extraordinary view? Or were their eyes cast down, under the weight of some burden? Did they see the castle as an amazing feat of architecture? Strategic military installation? A monument to oppression? Could they have imagined how much the world would change around it or what meaning would still cling to it (or not) 900 years later?

These questions surfaced at many of the other museums, cathedrals, castles, galleries and bridges that we explored as we journeyed through in Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Many of the sites were hundreds of years old, others much less, yet each chronicled perspectives on what mattered- power, wealth, art, people- carved into stone, captured on canvas or cast in iron.  These tributes to bygone eras left us wondering about both the accomplishments and the suffering: “Did they matter and what do they mean now?”

As a reading companion on this journey I took the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Austrian neurologist, psychologist and holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl. Having been held in four different concentration camps during WW II, his reflections come with insights that can only be acquired by someone who has experienced life with less than the bare essentials required for survival after being stripped of all the credentials and belongings that shaped his identify before his imprisonment. Seeing history through his lens of “transitoriness” challenges us to locate ourselves not in a deterministic past where things cannot be undone, but in the full potential of a future in which we can decide who we will aspire to be as quickly as our very next action. To that end he lays bare both the degree of man’s inhumanity to man as well as the power of hope to transform suffering into something meaningful.

It was hard not to be impressed by the amazing architecture, art and engineering that was present at every turn on our journey and at the same time feel the weight of the many who died in the creation and defence of not only these monuments but the philosophy and religion that flourished within and around them. Whose life had more meaning? The ones captured in the portraits hung in the galleries of the fortresses or the ones who carried the stones to build those same fortresses? We can speculate all we would like, but I believe Viktor Frankl would tell us that it would depend on the individual and the meaning they found in how they faced their challenges.

In the forward to Man’s Search for Meaning, Harold Kushner writes that Frankl’s most enduring insight is that “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you” (p.11). Maybe that’s why I loved the Robin Hood stories so much- he didn’t give up after losing his land, title and wealth. While I would not advocate taking the law into your own hands, his response to stand up for fairness, justice and mercy continues to resonate centuries later.

Every era is rife with challenges and this point in history is no different. If we are not anxious about whether we can do better that our predecessors, knowing what we now know, then perhaps we don’t understand that who we are and how we respond to the world around us matters. Embracing that anxiety as part of the challenge of finding our life purpose and making meaning is important. While the future may judge us harshly as we fumble with trying to make the right or best decision, I think Viktor Frankl would tell us to aim high and to accept bravely the challenges that come with that. This video of him speaking in 1972 speaks to that point.

For  great perspectives on philosophical and spiritual anxiety, check out Hoagie’s Blog Hop by clicking here or on the icon below.

21078390_10212344713945532_1775791135679757793_n Retrieved, August 27, 2017.