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NYC Helpline: How To: Develop as a Professional
Are You Teaching in the Zone?
Theresa London Cooper

“Good intentions and expertise are necessary but not sufficient to assure successful learning. "

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Ph.D

I have visited classes and have listen to the concerns teachers have regarding student learning and achievement. Some teachers say, “ I have taught --- (you fill in the blank) a million times and half of my class still has not learned it. I don’t understand.” They ask, “How do I ensure that my teaching leads to student learning and achievement?” My response: “Are you teaching in the zone – the zone of proximal development (ZPD)?”

The noted Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky is credited with the theory of cognitive learning zones – the zone of actual development (ZAD) and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). When students operate in the zone of actual development they are capable of completing a given assignment independently. When students work in the zone of proximal development they require assistance someone with greater knowledge—a teacher, a parent or classmate--to complete the assignment (Wilhelm, 2001).

"Good intentions and expertise are necessary but not sufficient to assure learning." If we want students to learn, we must determine when they can work independently and when they require assistance to complete an assignment. We must go a step further and start where students are and scaffold their learning to help them meet given objectives.

We must set learning conditions for our students, creating a climate that focuses on what they must learn. We must teach the strategies which will facilitate the learning, giving students opportunities to make future applications of the strategies to new learning situations (Wilhelm, 2001).

To that end, let us consider the workshop model which helps teachers scaffold student learning. It is important to model what we expect our students to do. Then provide guided practice to give students opportunities to exhibit their understanding. When we are confident that they have a sufficient level of understanding, we are free to send them off for independent practice with time to share examples of how they have used the strategy or information taught. The gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student is critical to student learning.

Ongoing assessment is essential in helping us determine what our students can do independently (ZAD) and what they can do only with the assistance of one with greater expertise (ZPD). The data will support appropriate differentiated instruction and lead students to higher learning and achievement.

Wilhelm, J. 2001. Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies. New York:

Do you have a comment or question about this article? E-mail Theresa.


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