The Zone of Proximal Development. It’s a thing in education, and it’s incredibly helpful.
The Zone of Proximal Development is the area just outside your comfort zone, where you are able to do something new with the right help.
Proximal means “close to”, so the zone of proximal development is what you would be able to do (that you can’t do now) with expert help. You might need guidance or instructions from someone with experience, but it’s within your capabilities.
The idea comes from the psychologist Lev Vygotsky:
“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (1978).
Three zones to consider
There are essentially three zones:
- You can do everything in this zone easily
- You’re capable of doing things in this zone with some help
- You can’t do the things in this zone even with help.
So you might be able to walk a mile right now. You could run a mile in 10 minutes with some training. You can’t run a 3-minute mile.
There can be many things that hold us back from expressing ourselves to the best of our ability – impostor syndrome, lack of technical knowledge, low or confused motivation or just plain fear.
In addition, singing teachers, vocal coaches and choral leaders may have a more difficult time finding that level of support and community. Much of their work is done by themselves, and they are often the only person “in authority”.
Unfortunately, the voice world is filled with suspicion, envy and closed-mindedness, so building a supportive community can be hard by yourself.
And the internet is heaving with “assistance” for your new goal, including a brand new slew of AI-created “courses” with extravagant promises and inaccurate content. AI doesn’t know the difference between truth and lie, or reality and fantasy and has been seen to make up “facts” and even create fake research papers to seem credible.
(Check out this CBS report of ChatGPT making up legal cases that were used in a court case – it didn’t go well…)
How do you choose who to work with?
When you are capable of something but can’t/don’t do it, how can you move forwards?
Let’s look at the key elements of effective ZPD coaching
A higher level of expertise or experience, the ability to transmit that knowledge in an effective way, and a personalised experience that fits you, the new student.
As a good singing teacher, vocal coach or choral leader you already know about this. You don’t just dish out the same exercises to every client day after day (if you do, stop reading now, you won’t understand this article).
You’re interested in the quality, the character, the potential, the personality of your client or group (yes, groups have a personality too…). You invariably have more knowledge or experience than the clients you’re teaching and your desire is to pass on the relevant bits to them without boring the pants off them.
So when you find yourself wanting to grow, to build on what you already know, to feel empowered again, you look for people with the same ethos as you who are further on in the journey and can give you the support you need. You’re serious about growth (your own and your students’).
Feeling ready to grow
Feeling ready to grow is the first step. Going into your zone of proximal development means you begin to look for help from people you know have the knowledge, ability and care to provide it.
And you don’t want a “cookie cutter” experience. You don’t want the same instructions as everyone else if you’re a CCM teacher and everyone else is classical. Or if everyone else is an essay writer and you’re an experiential doer. Or if you work with schoolkids and everyone else works with seasoned professionals. And you definitely don’t want to be told what to do or what to think – you’re capable of that thank you very much!
Stepping into the Zone of Proximal Development means linking up with someone who has more knowledge in that field than you do, AND who can create personalised experiences that help you overcome your barriers to be able to do what you are already capable of.
Why we do what we do
But there’s more to it than that. You already have skills that you may not even realise. Who is helping you to realise what you can already do? We call it your “Falling Off A Log” or FOAL, and we first wrote about it back in 2002 in Successful Singing Auditions.
That FOAL Process is now embedded in our coaching, our ethos and our Teacher Accreditation Programme. So not only do you get information, techniques and support from us, in group training classes, in pedagogy practicum classes, and in 1-1 mentoring and accountability sessions where we help you understand your student’s issues and how to solve them, you also get a much clearer idea of your own existing skills and talents. And you help to accept and grow them to discover your own individual take on the world.
Each cohort we run works together to support and educate each other, in buddy sessions, in sharing ideas in the group meetings, and in creating a strong community to bring your problems, solutions and wins to. And working within a supportive group, sometimes it’s not until you see someone else struggling to master a skill you can already do that you recognise your own abilities and knowledge. You can help them easily overcome their struggle without losing your own focus. It’s a powerful feeling.
The entire Accreditation programme is crafted to take you from your new Zone of Proximal Development back into an expanded comfort zone. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve learned (often without realising you’ve learned it). Check out the interviews we’ve done with our Cohorts during and after their Accreditation training process.
How do you know if you’re ready?
How do you know if you’re ready to make the step into the Zone of Proximal Development? Start by asking yourself the questions on this form – they’ll help you identify your own mindset. Then you can either delete the form (it’s private and specific to you) or you can send it to us and set up a chat with Gillyanne about moving forwards. We can even help you assess your own ZPD.
If you’ve got to this last paragraph, thank you. Stay thoughtful and interested. We’d love to hear from you.