The importance of learning in groups – The Zone of Proximal Development

A few weeks ago I was at the park with my nine-month-old son, Spencer, where I observed two older children playing on the monkey bars.

A young boy, around seven years old, was attempting the monkey bars for what looked like the first time. He tried a few times but he couldn’t get past the first rung. He kept falling off before even attempting to reach for the second rung. It was clear to me that he couldn’t quite figure out the technique required to move forward. A few moments later, a slightly older girl appeared on the scene. She was much more confident and managed the monkey bars without any hesitation.

What happened next was really interesting.

The younger boy, who had several failed attempts, observed the older girl on the monkey bars and learned two things. First, that it was possible to go all the way to the end of the five rungs, and second, the technique required to do it. He now had a teacher, or a mentor, to help close the learning gap.

This is called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

The ZPD for the boy was to go from not being able to do the monkey bars, to getting to the end successfully. In this case the zone was identified, and then a ‘mentor’ arrived to help coach and assist him through the gap to the point where he can do it.

The Zone of Proximal Development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. (ref)

This technique for learning is also referred to as scaffolding. This is where the teacher supports and helps you while you learn something, until you reach the point where you can do it successfully with assistance. At this point they remove the scaffolding so you can perform the activity on your own.

What can we learn from this story?

First, the slightly older girl is not an expert. She only knows a little more that the boy does. For all we know, a few weeks ago the girl might not have been able to do the monkey bars at all.

Perhaps more importantly, it wouldn’t be the same learning experience if the seven-year-old observed me doing the monkey bars. Regardless of whether I can do it or not, I’m a lot older and stronger and the young boy cannot relate to me as an adult.

Second, the younger boy was heavily involved in his own learning. Observing, trying, testing, failing and trying again.

Third, the younger boy built self-belief and confidence from seeing someone else achieve it first, and from observing someone very close to his stage in development.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the boy would probably have learned the monkey bars himself eventually, without help. But it would have taken him a lot longer. So we shouldn’t only consider what you are capable of on your own, but what you are capable of in a social setting: in a learning environment.

What does this tell you about being a member of the CMA?

You are capable of a lot more when you are surrounded by other people who you can learn from and who are relative to your stage of development.

The obvious caveat here is that the student has to actually put the effort in. There’s a lot of persistence and patience required. The ‘facilitator’ doesn’t give you the answer, and you are heavily involved in your learning.

What you’re hopefully starting to understand is that this happens multiple times every single day in the CMA Membership Community.

Every time someone asks the question:

  • How do I…?
  • Where is the…?
  • Why can’t I…?
  • What should I choose…?
  • Where can I find…?
  • What should I do…?

…this is the ZPD in practice.

For every question that’s asked in the CMA, someone has an answer. They do not have to be an expert – they just need to know just a little more than you do about that specific area or topic.

Someone provides the scaffolding for you, so you can learn, achieve, and go on to do it yourself – the next thing you know you’re teaching it to someone else!

In my opinion, this is what’s really at the heart of the CMA – learning from other people within your own ZPD.

So what does this mean for every CMA member?

It’s important for us to recognise and identify when someone needs help and is in the ZPD. This helps us understand the importance of asking and answering questions – everyone benefits as a result.

At different times you will take on the role of mentor, teacher or student.

You may feel that asking a question, or answering one, is relatively insignificant, but it’s very powerful. Especially when you take a longer term perspective.

You ask a question, close a small gap, become more confident, ask another question, close another small gap, help someone else with a problem or question, close a small gap, and so on.

Little by little you change, grow, develop and improve.

However, just like going to the gym every day and then looking in the mirror when you get home, you won’t see much difference from one day to the next, but over a 6- or 12-month period you’ll notice a significant change in your growth.

The group setting is much more challenging and rewarding than learning on your own because the students around you challenge you, pushing you to improve faster.

In short, it’s a very effective and efficient way of learning.

How would you benefit from being part of a learning community? Click here to find out how you can join the CMA Membership Community.



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About Chris Marr

Chris is the leading voice of the growing Content Marketing movement in the UK. His pioneering work has helped countless organisations grow through content marketing. His drive comes from a desire to help people break free from the world of interruption marketing.