The Right Kind of Challenge
By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

What makes learning feel great? When was the last time you learned something new – and loved the experience of learning it? Maybe it was a recipe that challenged you to create a dish you’d never prepared before; maybe it was a new melody to a hymn or blessing that seemed complicated at first, but then started to flow from your brain to your lips; maybe it was a new app that you didn’t think you’d be able to master – until you did.

A century ago the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the term zone of proximal development to refer to the place just outside of our comfort zones, where we’re functioning just beyond our current capabilities. This is the space we inhabit while we are challenging ourselves to learn something new, do something we haven’t done before, or understand a concept more deeply than we have in the past.

Developmentally Appropriate is the “D” in Inspired Teaching’s ABCDE of Learner Needs. For children and teens, developmentally appropriate learning means having the opportunity to engage in learning tasks that are interesting, relevant, and challenging, but that meet them where they are, developmentally.

For example, as my dear friend and colleague Pax always points out, it just doesn’t work to ask 3-year-olds to share. They have to experience ownership (“It’s MINE!”) before they are ready to actually share. When we ask 3-year-olds to share, they simply feel like we’re taking something away from them, which affects their sense of autonomy.

As adults, our developmental stages are far more spread out than they were when we were children. (The developmental differences between, say, a 5-year-old and a 15-year-old are far greater than the differences between a 45-year-old and a 55-year old!) However developmental appropriateness is still highly relevant for us. In order to continue to grow and learn, we adults need to spend time in our zones of proximal development. This means stepping out of our comfort zones on purpose, knowing it will increase not only our knowledge but also our wellbeing.

The challenge is to step far enough outside of comfort and routine that we can learn, but not so far that we slip into the alarm zone. The alarm zone is the place that is so far outside our comfort zones, and so full of fear, that we begin to shut down. Learning can’t happen in the alarm zone, for us or for our students. There’s no need to list the events that have propelled us into the alarm zone during these past few years – we all know what it feels like to try and pull ourselves and our students out of that space. But we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t seek opportunities to spend time in that vital place between alarm and comfort.

As my mentor, Oran Sandel used to say, “The imagination is a muscle!” Imagination is a key part of our learning apparatus. And, like all muscles, it can be damaged if it’s overstretched. But if it’s not stretched at all, it will atrophy.

Developmental Appropriateness: “I am nurtured in my continual growth.” 

Developmental appropriateness for a teacher is about access to the supports we require throughout our careers to keep growing in our work, and the appropriate level of challenge that keeps us in the zone of proximal development.

Where is this need in your life right now according to this spectrum? 

How is the need for developmental appropriateness being met in your life right now? 

What changes might be necessary in order for your need for developmental appropriateness to be better met? 

You can download an interactive version of these questions on our ABCDE website.

This week, as you think through the lessons you have planned for your students, consider how you can invite them outside of their comfort zones, and into their zones of proximal development. And consider ways you can step safely into the unknown and meet your own need for challenging, developmentally appropriate learning too. 

Wishing you a week of joyful learning.

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Come As You Are

This downloadable zine includes the lyrics to a song that speaks to finding your own zone of proximal development and growing there. (You can listen to a recording here.) Learn more about how to create these little books here. 

Yardsticks, by Chip Wood 

This book by Chip Wood is an excellent resource for learning more about your students' zones of proximal development. "Yardsticks is a comprehensive guide that helps educators better understand students’ social and academic behavior through a developmental lens. Through age-by-age narratives, developmental characteristics, and activities, the author gives educators thoughtful, research-based, practical strategies to meet students’ needs."

Join us for our FREE 
February Inspired Teaching Institutes

Teaching and parenting can be challenging in the best of circumstances; in these unprecedented times, it’s downright exhausting. But as much as adults are feeling fatigued, so are our children, which can lead to very real, very frustrating issues in the classroom and at home. In our February Institute, “The HeART of Discipline,” Center for Inspired Teaching will take you on a deep dive into our student-centered approach to navigating challenging behaviors.

Through a series of improvisational activities, guided self-reflection, and collaborative brainstorming, you’ll learn strategies for building intrinsic motivation in students by harnessing their innate curiosity and tapping into their interests. You’ll also practice shifting interactions away from compliance and toward engagement. Our goal is that you leave the session with a fresh perspective on what you want discipline to look like in your home or classroom and the tools to make it happen!

This workshop is FREE for everyone–from first-year teachers to seasoned veterans and parents at their wits’ end. We encourage you to bring your experience to the table.

"The HeART of Discipline" will take place twice: 

  • Wednesday, February 9 | 7-9 PM ET 
  • Saturday, February 12 | 10 AM to 12 PM ET 
Both sessions will be online. Links to registration pages can be found below. 

DC Public School teachers get PLUs through the Washington Teachers' Union for participation. Thanks to the generosity of our donor community, Institutes are free for all participants. 
Register for Wednesday, February 9 | 7-9 PM ET
Register for Saturday, February 12 | 7-9 PM ET
Download a Calendar of Our Monthly Institutes
Courses for Teachers
#Inspired2Learn Resources
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