All teachers live for the “ah ha” moment — that time when we see the spark of connection occur for an individual student.
While the spark may seem spontaneous, teachers know that getting to that particular moment takes a lot of careful thought, planning, and attention. If you push a student too hard or too fast, he will not be able to understand the material in a way that allows for creative or critical connections. If you go too slow or make the connections too explicit, students will lose interest and fall back.
In the 1920s, psychologist Lev Vygotsky termed this particular space the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), defined as the difference between an individual’s ability to solve a problem alone or under the guidance of an adult or peers. By pitching instruction right at the edge of this zone, students would be guided, ever increasingly, towards more and more independent learning. One metaphor that emerged from this theory was the concept of “scaffolded learning.” Over time, a skilled instructor adjusts her lessons to fit the changing performance of the student.
Technology, having already transformed so much of the way the world operates, continues to give us more ways to individualize and target learning in the ZPD.
At Marshall School this year, every student in the 6th grade is working with a software program called ALEKS to find their own math “zone” and enhance their overall performance.
ALEKS was developed in the early 1990s through funding from the National Science Foundation as a result of ground-breaking research in mathematical cognitive science from professors at New York University, the University of California-Irvine, and the University of Brussels.
This mathematical software uses complex Knowledge Space Theory to efficiently and accurately assess a student’s current knowledge and adapt the program’s questions to fit the exact topics or areas that a student is ready to master next.
The program is currently being used by millions of students ranging in ages from the elementary years to the college level.
At Marshall, our 6th grade math teacher has had all students assessed using ALEKS and has been presented with a detailed inventory of her individual students’ readiness. This powerful new tool enables her to individualize math instruction. Rather than presenting the same lesson to all students (when some have already mastered the topic), she can take the opportunity to present a lesson to one group of students while allowing the others to continue their work independently in ALEKS. Later in the unit, she then addresses the needs of those higher performing students in small group sessions while providing other more appropriate learning opportunities for the students still mastering the main concepts of the unit.
In addition to maximizing the use of class instructional time, this technology has been proven to greatly increase both individual and overall cohort performance in mathematics. Marshall’s 6th grade math teacher notes, “ALEKS is the ultimate math tool for differentiation. Students love it because they can choose what they want to learn and the immediate feedback is rewarding. As a teacher, I feel more confident that all of my students will be challenged at their individual learning level.”
There is no way that Vygotsky could have imagined how his theories of the 1920s have not only stood the test of time but have been made even more effective through the use of new and more powerful technologies.