Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Seeking Clarity: Teaching through the lense of ZPD.

A Toe In The Pond!

This is my first dip in the blogging pond and I couldn't think of a topic closer to my heart at the moment to experience it!

To quickly introduce myself, I'm a teacher at P-9 college in Melbourne's western suburbs. I've taught across many different year levels and disciplines (from Prep all the way through to VCE). I have a particular passion for the use of technology in teaching and learning environments and 21st Century learning cultures. I currently teach a P-4 ICT program but most importantly I consider myself a student of life and attempt congruence in all that I do!

What is ZPD?

Earlier this year our College had a visit from a remarkable speaker, Mr. Phillip Holmes Smith. Phillip was a key contributor to the development of the SPA program which allows for statistical analysis of assessment tools such as NAPLAN, OnDemand and ACER tests.

I'll be the first to admit that when I looked at the curriculum day agenda and saw four hours of statistical analysis penciled in I didn't think there was enough coffee in the world to get me through it! But I pin point this particular day as a key turning point in my teaching career and to be even more specific Phillip's presentation to our staff.

Among valuable insights into the composition and analysis of our assessment tools, Phillip 'introduced' me to the concept of the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). I emphasize the word 'introduced' because I had crossed paths with this notion before. Perhaps more times than I can count. However I had never experienced its delivery in such a succinct, statistically supported format before. And it was at this moment my teaching took a left hand turn and I started my ZPD journey.

[For a peek into the world of ZPD I found this online resource useful!:ZPD Resources]

To encapsulate ZPD in a metaphorical nutshell it refers to the 'difference between what a learner can do without help and what he/she can do with help' [ZPD Definition] I interpret this to be the learning zone where teaching can be at its most effective.

ZPD Hunting: A Crash Course!

Armed with pure unfiltered inspiration and knowledge (perhaps Phillip found my ZPD!) I set about hunting this in my teaching practice. My starting point hinged on some key points:

  • 'Less is More': I needed to reshape my expectations of what can be achieved in a short amount of time and 'make' time for my students to experience learning rather than being rushed from pillar to post.
  • ZPD is measurable and specific: By using ZPD as a measure of growth I would be generating solid data for both formative and summative purposes.
  • Pre-test and Post-test: Not just for my own checklists and reporting but for the benefit of my students
  • Feedback: Give it lots! Whenever I can, in whatever format I can! Never underestimate its value in the teaching and learning process.

Where to start? Well I had already decided to design a 'scope and sequence' typing program across my P-4 classes..... and that's where I decided to make a start!

Mapping It Out: Scope & Sequence

I had taught typing skills before to a range of year levels but it was highly intuitive to me that there was a sequence of skills in building towards successful touch typing. AUSVELS had very little to offer on the matter so I went hunting.

It was interesting to see the different interpretations of skill scaffolding across the country and internationally (the beauty of a connected digital world!) but one particular sequence stood out and I used I decided to use it as the basis of my framework [Maple Lake Typing Scope & Sequence]

Once I had clearly defined my expectations at each year level I was ready to move on to the next step of being one step ahead!

Being One Step Ahead: Identifying Misconceptions

I felt to effectively teach this scope and sequence and to identify correctly each student's ZPD I'd have to anticipate their misconceptions about typing. This wasn't an easy process. I had to reflect back on my experience as an ICT teacher and the frustrations and challenges I had observed in my students. Eventually I nutted out a few:

  • Letter ID: Gaming skills didn't automatically translate into an intimate knowledge of the keyboard. While WASD is the holy grail of gaming it doesn't necessarily improve typing skills! I would have to begin with straight forward letter ID with my junior levels if I wanted to correct this!
  • Speed > Accuracy: After observing more than my fair share of publishing sessions in the computer lab I was adamant to challenge the notion that speed is more important than accuracy with my students!
  • Why type?: If this scope and sequence was to 'shape' a permanent 'bridge' in my students learning it needs to have a direct relevance in their world. Discussing this early on would be an important part of my lesson unit.

Pre-testing: Be prepared!

With all the groundwork done I set about developing my pre-tests. I realised early on from Phillip's presentation that the way I go about pre-testing would be critical to my ability to locate and work with ZPD. 

That's not to say that I'm not allowed to make errors! Trial and error is an essential part of learning. But this awareness generated a new intuition within me that had previously lay dormant:

Be prepared for instant feedback and resourcing at the exact moment of pre-testing.

We've all experienced pre-testing before and the anxiety that comes with 'How did I go?' I posed myself this question: 'As a teacher how could I make pre-testing more than just data collection for my own formative purposes?'

The answer is: I anticipated what students may achieve in their pre-test and what resources they would need to begin improving.

ZPD in action!

With my Grade 4 students our very first class was an introduction to the concepts of WPM and accuracy in typing. My learning intention centered on these particular concepts as well as outlining the expectations for this year level (eg. 15 WPM with 80% accuracy).

I selected a program to test their WPM and accuracy levels [Typing Speed Test]. I discussed with my students why I was pre-testing and what pre-testing is in an attempt to alleviate unnecessary anxiety about performance.

But without knowing it I was about to take it to the next level....

As each student completed their pre-test I found myself verbalizing to them their score immediately. This generated a powerful response from many. I had students proclaim, 'I am better at this than I thought!' or 'I didn't make the speed and accuracy benchmark, what do I do now?'

My usual response would be to 'get back' to each student later with a resource that they could use but my teaching experience kicked in and I found myself directing each student to a specific typing game or tutorial that suited their ZPD.

The vibe of the room was incredible! By the end of the lesson (just a straight forward pre-testing type deal) each student knew:

  • The specific expectations of what they had to reach (typing speed and accuracy benchmark)
  • Their own ZPD starting point
  • A specific resource to help them improve from that point
  • That they would be given time and opportunities to improve or exceed the expectations set.

I remember sitting in my office at the end of the day and for the first time in my teaching career feeling as though I had conducted something seriously effective! And I wanted more of it!

Communication: Student feedback

Immediately I logged into Edmodo to get a pulse on what the students had thought of that lesson. I really value what my students think of my lessons (even if I think I've hit the mark sometimes their perception is different and this helps me to make adjustments). The conversations were already happening. I had pre-posted the typing resources that I introduced them to in that lesson so that they would be readily available at home.

Student comments ranged from:

  • 'I feel good because I know what I have to do to get better at typing'
  • 'I've already started practicing my typing accuracy'
  • 'I want to be able to get past 15 WPM does anyone want to race me on that?'

It is very empowering to see students feel motivated and see the task set before them as achievable. As the unit unfolded Edmodo soon became a common communication tool for typing game competitions and general chat about the typing program. I often used it as my gauge of student perceptions.

The Unit: Less is More

As the typing units unfolded I found quickly where my planning had hit the mark and where I would make future adjustments. What I did discover though was that by keeping my learning intention clear, specific and uncrowded I was able to assist more students in 'shaping their typing bridge'. 

In the perfect teaching world, I would have loved the opportunity to go back over certain areas and there were times where I was brave and re-visited concepts at the risk of 'powering ahead' in my planner. I only have my students once a fortnight which made for 6 lessons (if I was lucky with no interruptions!). 

After the second lesson I introduced a concept I call 'checkpoints'. Checkpoints are an opportunity for students to measure their own progress and reflect on what they have learnt. In the case of my Grade 4 cohort the 'checkpoints' were often a chance to revisit the typing speed test to see if improvement was evident. 

As with any assessment or self-reflective tool, timing is critical to effectiveness. I feel that using those mini checkpoints more effectively could be my next step in development.

Post-Testing: The Results Are In!

Was there any observable, statistical growth in the typing skills of my Grade 4 cohort? 

Yes. But not quite what I expected!

I made use of Phillip's SPA data tool (which I highly recommend to anyone who is on a ZPD hunting trip) to analyse my results. In summary this is what I found:

  • Some students exceeded my expectations (and their own) achieving Grade 6+ results.
  • Some students went backwards! (Why? I don't know!)
  • A majority of students experienced success and growth even if they didn't hit the benchmark.
I repeated my approach with the pre-testing lesson and gave my students their post-testing results immediately after the test had finished. It was very powerful to see their response to their own growth. 

Report Writing: ZPD Specificity

When it came to report writing this semester I was (I know you won't believe me but its true!) bursting to write about my students ZPD growth. I had a sense of pride in what they had achieved and I wanted to share that with their families and learning community.

I designed my report achievement comments to not only reflect their specific ZPD scores but my improvement comments to instruct on how to continue to improve. That to me felt like the most effective reporting I've ever been involved in and something I hope to do more of in the future!

Final Thoughts........

I believe that students own their learning journey (its not mine, its theirs!) and its important to keep them informed of it at all times. I felt that Phillip was essentially accurate when he said with statistical significance that 'learning is not a linear process'. ZPD allowed me to tap into that beautiful, unique learning path that each student takes and shape potential bridges to new achievements.


  1. Great reflection Catherine. I am really intrigued with where ZPD fits in regards to learning and teaching in supposed outlying/specialist subjects, such as art and technology. I remember speaking with Phillip Holmes-Smith about this and he said that for subjects that are not a part of some sort of continuum, such as robotics or photography, that ZPD can be more difficult. I am also really interested as to where ZPD fits within an inquiry based classroom, whether it be Project-Based Learning or Design Thinking. I feel that I really need to investigate this in more detail.

    1. I agree Aaron! ZPD is perhaps not the best measuring tool of growth in areas where there is no continuum or at least some form of scope and sequence. I too would be interested to know how it could be used effectively (if at all) in more open learning situations.

  2. Great work Cath! I am glad I read this after our session this afternoon as I enjoyed hearing you explain your journey and the power it has given you as a teacher to keep going and use this.
    ZPD is something that cannot be used each and every time but when used well it is such a powerful tool. I look forward to hearing of more success stories!
    Keep up the wonderful teaching. :)

  3. Great to see you're interested in the concept of ZPD! As you, and Phillip, suggest Vygotsky doesn't view development as a linear process rather development as stages. For further reading about ZPD you might be interested in this paper which is written by an Associate Professor at Monash. You might also be interested in connecting with Princess Hill as their approach is based on Vygotsky's cultural historical theory.

    Esme Capp's thesis is online but it is probably a bit of heavy read but does give a thorough description of how learning happens at her school.

  4. Thank you for the feedback and additional resources Richard! With each discussion I have about this form of assessment and feedback the more I realise how many interpretations and adaptations exist! I recently went to a presentation at Melbourne University Assessment Research Centre where they applied ZPD type techniques to the growth assessment of collaboration skills. That to me highlighted some new applications as well as some unknown limitations.