Underpinning research

Below we provide summaries of two underlying theories. You may be already familiar with them, but in this step we’d like you to refresh and focus on how they inform differentiation for learning.

Read and comment

Read one of the summaries below. How might the theories presented inform the way you teach and differentiate learning in your classroom?

Add your initial thoughts to the discussion on this step. Don’t worry if you haven’t fully formed your thinking, it’s worth capturing your initial ideas in the comments first. Then, draw upon other learners’ contributions to help you develop your thinking.

Lev Vygotsky and ZPD

Vygotsky stresses the importance of looking at each child as an individual who learns distinctively. Consequently, the knowledge and skills that are worthwhile learning varies with the individual.

The overall goal of education according to Vygotsky is to “generate and lead development which is the result of social learning through internalization of culture and social relationships”. He repeatedly stressed the importance of past experiences and prior knowledge in making sense of new situations or present experiences. Therefore, all new knowledge and newly introduced skills are greatly influenced by each student’s culture, especially their family environment.

Vygotsky promoted the development of higher level thinking and problem solving in education. If situations are designed to have students utilize critical thinking skills, their thought processes are being challenged and new knowledge gained. The knowledge achieved through experience also serves as a foundation for the behaviors of every individual.

Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) posits that human potential is theoretically limitless; but the practical limits of human potential depend upon quality social interactions and residential environment. This ZPD is “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”. In theory, then, so long as a person has access to a more capable peer, any problem can be solved.

Lev Vygotsky and ZPD Lev Vygotsky and the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD)

The ZPD works in conjunction with the use of scaffolding. Knowledge, skills and prior experiences, which come from an individual’s general knowledge, create the foundation of scaffolding for potential development. At this stage, students interact with adults and/or peers to accomplish a task, which could possibly not be completed independently. The use of language and shared experience is essential to successfully implementing scaffolding as a learning tool.

Vygotsky defined the “More Knowledgeable Other” (MKO) as anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher or an older adult. However, this is not always the case. Other possibilities for the MKO could be a peer, sibling, a younger person, or even a computer. The key to MKO is that they must have more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does. Teachers or more capable peers can raise the student’s competence through the ZPD.

In summary, Vygotsky’s findings suggest that the curriculum should generally challenge and stretch learner’s competence. The curriculum should provide many opportunities to apply previous skills, knowledge and experiences, with “authentic activities connected to real-life environment” “… since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks”.

(Adapted from M. Dahms, K. Geonnotti, D. Passalacqua. J. N. Schilk, A. Wetzel, and M. Zulkowsky, 2007.)

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Flow

Csíkszentmihályi explains that “flow” is likely to occur when an individual is faced with a task that has clear goals that require specific responses. “If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Flow

Students in: Arousal, Control and Flow states are intrinsically motivated. Students in: Apathy, Worry and Anxiety are less well motivated.

Five Things You Can Do to Achieve Flow

  1. Your skills need to be well-matched to the task. According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is most likely to occur when your skill level is perfectly aligned to the challenge that the activity presents. So a runner might experience flow during a marathon that he or she is well-prepared for, or a chess-player might reach this state during a game that presents the perfect challenge. In other words, gaining practice, experience and expertise in an activity will make it more likely that you will achieve flow in the future.

  2. In some cases, striving for something that challenges your existing skills can lead to a state of flow. A slight stretching of your skills, or attempting something that is a little more advanced than your current abilities, can also foster a flow state. For a dancer, this might involve attempting a move that presents a bit of a challenge. For a graphic designer, it might involve taking on a project that requires utilizing a new type of software. Focus on adding new challenges on a regular basis. Not only will you become more skilled, you may find that the state of flow becomes much easier to achieve.

  3. Have clear goals. You need to have a specific purpose for focusing on the task, such as winning an athletic contest, playing a particular piece of music or finishing a work project. That is not to say you should only engage in an activity in order to achieve a goal. People who achieve flow frequently are often intrinsically motivated to perform certain actions. In other words, they may have specific goals in mind, but they engage in these actions for their own sake as well.

  4. Avoid interruptions. It is important to devote all of your concentration to the task at hand. Multitasking and other distractions will disrupt the flow state. Set aside a time and space that will allow you to work on a project without being interrupted or distracted. Turn off your phone, television or other devices that might pull you away from the task at hand.

  5. It is essential to focus on the process and not the end state. While having a goal is important, flow requires enjoying the journey and not just fixating on the end product. Allow yourself to simply live in the present moment without worrying too much about the ultimate outcome of your efforts.

Achieving flow can be a pleasurable experience, but it may also have other benefits as well. Research suggests that the benefits of flow include increased skill development and improved performance. Becoming more skilled and capable at a task can help improve your self-esteem in that area and give you a boost of self-confidence related to those skills.

(Adapted from Cheery, K., 2016, Understanding the Psychology of Flow.)

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Differentiation for Learning

National STEM Learning Centre