Last time, we defined Zone of Proximal Development and “Sweet Spot” (technical term!)  Let’s dig into this a little more, and then outline the two main guidelines for keeping a student there.

This space of learning—after you’ve been shown something, but before you’ve got it in the bag–that’s a fun happy space!  The brain loves to be in this space, and loves to see skills move through this space into Mastery.  So why does learning sometimes stop feeling so fun?  Especially with Math, a subject famous for knocking a student out of their happy learning place?  One culprit is we’re expecting students to work on things outside this zone. We’re expecting them to work on things they either already have in the bag (boring) or things that are unfair to expect them to do on their own just yet (defeating).  The antidote then, the guidelines for keeping students in their sweet spot, are…

Guidelines for Keeping a Student in Their Sweet Spot:

  1. Don’t teach past what they’re ready for.
  2. Don’t give busy work.

(TO NOTE: Do not get mad at your child’s classroom teacher if they aren’t doing this for your child. I have no idea how you’d do this in a classroom of 25+ kids, all at different levels. That’s why I teach 1:1. Your child’s classroom teacher is a saint and a hero.)
(TO NOTE, amendment: actually, I think there are ways to integrate this kind of practice-method in a classroom, but it’s a big discussion that requires more than what a sole classroom teacher could easily do on his/her own, even if they weren’t already overworked and underpaid. We will probably explore that in this blog someday. Your child’s classroom teacher is a saint and a hero.)

Number One Rule. Don’t teach past what they’re ready for. If you as a student have truly been set up for success, each new level of math should feel completely do-able and accessible. The fact that it doesn’t, for most math students, sooner or later, simply means that that the last level didn’t get mastered. At every new level of math, there is a new layer of skills that you’ll be figuring out. You won’t be able to do them independently, you’ll need help. The previous layers will have felt like that too at some point, but by now, if they have been practiced effectively all the way to Mastery, then they will feel INTUITIVE.You will be DONE with those skills. You won’t have to figure them out anymore. They are there to support the new skills you’re being expected to learn. When math starts feeling impossible, as it does for so many of us, it’s because we’re still getting that last layer down. We’re not ready for the new layer yet. Don’t give it to us before we’re ready or our brains will reject it. We will hate math, feel discouraged by it, think we can’t do it, and start asking why the heck we have to learn it. Vicious downward spiral. Yuk.

Number Two Rule. Don’t give busy work. This is a tricky one because it is true that the more practice you have at a given type of problem, the better you become at it. The more automatic it feels, the more your brain energy gets freed up for the next level of skills. But it is also true that practice can quickly become tedious and mind-numbing once you’ve made it past that first problem moment. In a perfect world, the student will have perfectly prescribed practices that are just right for their level. Your brain loves to witness progress. Nailing something that just recently seemed difficult is rarely boring. In fact the most common student response to this scenario is “these are fun!”

Points to ponder.  Fun stuff to roll around in your head, or better: to talk about with your learner!
Perhaps trends in math education have taken the second rule to heart more than the first.
Which do you think is more likely, or happens more frequently?
a) A student gets too much practice on a certain bank of skills and is therefore bored (and not in their ZPD/sweet spot).
b) A student wasn’t given enough of the right type of practice on a certain bank of skills and is therefore overwhelmed and defeated (and not in their ZPD/ sweet spot).

<– Missed Part I? Read it here!

Want to learn more? Read Part III of the series! –>