Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the concept that social interaction advances a child’s learning. He put forth that conversation leverages the interaction between a less experienced kiddo and a more experienced person. The difference between what a child can learn on her own and what she can learn with help was termed the Zone of Proximal Development.
We see this every day when children (being the powerful learning machines that they are) pick up ideas and skills from interacting successfully with others in activities they wouldn’t be able to navigate on their own. Their “Show me, please!” leads to “May I try?” and quickly on to “Lemme do it all by myself.”
Vygotsky’s contribution has extensive potential for what goes on in schools to improve learning. For example, this theory of learning helps explain how children who are read to by family members, librarians and preschool teachers, and whose questions about books and words and reading are generously answered, can show up at school on the first day of Kindergarten already pretty much reading. Thank you supportive adults!
In the working world, some employers have begun to direct their employees to regularly put aside their regular work and invite them together or alone to explore new projects of their own choice related to the company’s industry. This affirming and rewarding personal research and development period, arranged on a company’s time and maintaining a company focus, is said not only to result in better worker morale, but also can lead to new products and services that benefit the whole company. Win-win!
In education, that time has been referred to as the Genius Hour (and various other similar activities with a range of clever names). It is a concept that has been adopted by many schools that struggle to keep their kids engaged…which could include all of them, of course.
So, what might that look like in a classroom?
In school, kids are best understood as knowledge workers, so the mechanics are basically the same as for aduts. For a set period of time each day or each week, students the kids get to put aside their school work and explore a topic or activity they find personally fascinating, related to a subject they are studying.
Inviting workers of all kinds to express their personal knowledge-work agendas for part of their regular work day or week is evidently good for pretty much everyone who engages in it. Like the business version, the school version should offer some structure and the choices children make about their independent learning should be approved. The end result should be a product they can share with their peers (and teacher), because goodness knows we can’t have kids just goofing around in school.
The simple sequence is:
Propose (state what they personally want to learn or develop)
Research (read books / do research about their chosen topic)
Create (prepare a way to show off their findings with peers)
Present (lead the class to discuss the fruits of their solo learning experiences)
Of course, when kids PRESENT to their classmates, they are now doing so as the more experienced learners leading the rest of the class’s less experienced learners and Vygotsky’s zone propels a cluster win-win-win!
The bonus for teachers and parents is that nothing is easier than teaching a child something they wish to learn. So, if teachers are sufficiently inspirational about the subjects they teach, and if librarians can help children find the appropriate resources for their projects, mass learning ensues.
Not bad for a bunch of school kids just goofing around.