Meeting student’s in the ‘magic middle’

By Alex More 

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The middle it seems is rather elusive in education.

We as educators tend to cater well for the very gifted with a challenge in abundance. We also work hard with students who require more support to learn. As a result and because teachers are human we often forget about those students ‘in the middle’. This group are nameless but will be known as NON  ‘Not Often Noticed’ for the purpose of this blog. By nature, our NON-students tend to be passive, polite and don’t demand our attention, but statistically, they make up the largest demographic represented by 61% of the student body in the UK (EEF study, 2015).

I once heard of an interesting idea where the teacher was asked to draw three circles on a whiteboard. In the first circle, the teacher was asked to write down the names of all the students who demanded the most attention. These students were mostly represented by either the students who required more support to learn or those that misbehaved on a regular basis. The second circle was filled in with students who were considered academically abler, an awkward phrase but filled with student’s who relished teacher challenge which ultimately demands time. The final circle was for students who fit into any of the categories above. Teacher’s sometimes struggled to recall these names, normally 3-4 students are temporarily forgotten, these are the ‘invisible students’ and they need our attention.  

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Could we be doing more for this group?

Perhaps, and maybe we should, but with ever-increasing pressures being placed on teachers everywhere this is unlikely to happen. So then, let’s consider viewing the middle through a different lens, one that is inclusive, one that does not discriminate and one that is not designated to any group at all … welcome to the ‘magic middle’.

Many students are good at staying in the middle zone, where it is comfortable and safe from challenge.  These are the students who are just getting by, as they probably will do most of their lives. While they are doing so, the opportunity is slipping past them.  I think we are right to try and draw them away from that passivity and help them grasp for better, even though it is our idea of better and not necessarily theirs.

In a recent blog Students as the main actors of the learning process Blog linkI discussed the potential role Vygotsky’s ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) plays in helping teachers work with students to bridge the gap between what they know and what they are yet to learn. This blog attracted a healthy level of interest on the blog, via emails and via the social media platforms. We love a good conversation that’s linked to learning, so with this in mind, the aim of this short blog is to respond to a few of those comments and conversations hinged around three main themes, or ideas …

  • More about Vygotsky and his ZPD work
  • How the ZPD works in practice
  • Bergers ‘magic middle’

 

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)

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Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist and a thinker ahead of his time. He was the founder of some unfinished theories which were considered controversial at the time. His thinking and ideas were widely suppressed by the Stalin regime and Vygotsky died before he could really explore the potential of his ideas. His work on developmental psychology, specifically interpersonal connections and actions within social environments have lived on, even if the ZPD and instructional scaffolding were vague notions prior to his death. His work has found new life in the hands of academic believers, the ‘Vygotsky cult’. His work was written in his mother tongue, Russian and translated after he died. Some critics believe some of his work was lost in translation and hint at limitations relating to socio-cultural theory. One certainty remains, Vygotsky viewed interactions between students and teachers as ‘social interactions’. The ZPD could be the framework to explain how teachers and students work together, interact and learn from each other.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

A widely accepted definition states that the ZPD is the area between a child’s current development level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level a child could achieve through adult guidance or supportive peers.

In the educational context, usually, the classroom setting the ZPD occurs when the teacher gives the student some input or instruction on how to do a skill or task. It must represent new learning for the student. The ZPD is a dynamic and ever-changing place where interactions are exchanged and crucially relies on many variables. These variables often hinge on how the student perceives the knowledgeable other (the teacher or peer). Below is an example featuring our imaginary child Hope.

Hope is unsure how to approach a question that requires her to evaluate the impact of a high cholesterol diet on the heart (6 marks).

She has some knowledge of what the question is asking. In this particular example, she knows what cholesterol is and has a firm grasp on that knowledge. Hope is struggling to understand what is meant by ‘evaluating’. At this stage she requires help.

Cue the teacher and or knowledgeable other. The student is ready to work within the ZPD

(It is worth mentioning at this point the teacher doesn’t actually have to be present for the ZPD to become operational. The technology exists today that allows this to happen remotely, via email, Google Drive, and other online sharing platforms, even social media if working with knowledgeable peers)

Teacher – tell me what you understand about the question

Hope – I know what cholesterol is and that cholesterol can be good and bad. I don’t really understand what the question means by ‘evaluate’

Teacher – Interesting, there are-  good cholesterols and bad cholesterols. Cholesterol is a fatty substance known as a lipid. I assume you are happy with the difference between a Low-Density and a High-Density lipoprotein?

Hope – Yes got it, low is bad, fatty foods etc and high density means it’s got lots of good fats the body can use

Teacher – correct, so let’s focus on evaluating then. By definition, evaluate means to determine or set the value of something, to appraise it for it’s good and not so good qualities. In the context of this question, you are being asked to evaluate the impact. The impact is what happens, the end result so perhaps you could evaluate what happens when you have a high concentration of bad cholesterol in the body. As you mentioned, bad cholesterols are low-density lipoproteins. You could link these with health risks to really show your understanding and perhaps make a couple of recommendations

Hope – Cool, that makes sense I’ll go away and have a go at it on my own now. 

If the instructional scaffolding is sufficient, the area between what the student is capable of and what they are not capable of is reduced. In the example above, Hope had some grasp of the keywords but required support in the ZPD to gain the insights required to link the learning together. In this example, she needs the teacher to shed some light on how to evaluate. 

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The overlapping curves of the Venn-diagram above highlight in pictorial form the ZPD. How much time students spend in the ZPD depends on many variables. Katherine Berger proposed that we should view this overlapping area as the magic middle

Berger’s Magic Middle

Berger’s view on the ZPD differs slightly from the traditional view in that she viewed this zone as the gap between what a student already knows and what a student isn’t ready to learn. She proposed that practitioners should partially remove the scaffolding but not completely as the learner would fall over. Whilst this is hypothetical the reasoning seems logical and describes perfectly some of the students I teach. Educating students in the magic middle requires teachers to use a series of verbal prompts to ensure the learning is individualized.

These verbal prompts can be separated into two levels;

1st level: Private Speech

At this level private speech (the learner articulating their thoughts aloud) helps them regulate their thinking. The teacher can listen and judge what the child knows and where the gaps in knowledge appear to be.

2nd level: Inner Speech

This level occurs when the learner leaves the proximity of the teacher and is working independently on the task with the knowledge gained from time spent in the magic middle. Think of this as an intrinsic by-product of extrinsic feedback where instruction is modified for each new learning experience.

According to Vygotsky, at any given point in a child’s development, there are certain problems that the child is on the verge of solving, they just require a little guidance and input to get there. In reality, the limitations of the classroom, specifically the ratio of teacher to the child make time in the magic middle precious. One idea to maximize the impact of the ZPD and time spent in the magic middle is to introduce children as Learning Experts.

Learning Experts

Students are the main actors of the learning process, so why not trust them to teach each other?

Peer and collaborative learning scored an effect size of 0.53 in the Hattie ranking system (revised 2017) so worthy of consideration for educators looking to use knowledgeable children to teach or at least instruct other children within the classroom.

There is no blueprint for Learning Experts at the moment, it’s an idea at the embryonic stage. However, it seems logical to assume it could work. I recently completed a thesis on Flipped Learning and discovered by default that most of the students interviewed collaborated online via social media when discussing the flipped task I had set for home study. When asked why they did this their responses were consistent with thinking around the ZPD. Students valued the opinions of their peers and wanted someone to check knowledge with prior to submitting. You could argue this is a safe way to learn, it makes a great deal of sense.  

Learning Experts could be any student in the class. With our NON (Not often Noticed) group making up the largest proportion of groups within the classroom, perhaps becoming a learning expert is the NON-child’s way to get recognised. Furthermore, could we as educators train, skill up and trust these learning experts to teach and instruct others in the magic middle?

I don’t have the answer to this but it’s a cool proposition … I’ll leave it in your hands to decide and maybe try in lessons.

‘The middle path is the way to wisdom’ (Rumi)

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