From the Field: The Zone of Proximal Development

Several quarters ago, a student of mine gave a great speech about the ZPD, or “zone of proximal development.” As she explained it to us, every learner (in our case, an audience member) comes into the room with an existing set of knowledge and skills. The zone of proximal development contains the set of knowledge and skills that you as the teacher (speaker) can help them develop. Outside the zone of proximal development are the knowledge and skills that are too advanced for them at this point: while you may be able to help them learn these things in the future, they’re out of reach at this particular time.

Therefore, whenever you’re teaching (speaking), your goal should be to spend most of your time in this ZPD as you can—while it may be good to briefly review what your audience already knows, spending too much time on such review is a waste. Likewise, it’s also a waste of time to spend your time outside of this ZPD—no matter how much you try to explain, the audience won’t get it.

In the end, the key takeaway here is that whenever you are designing a speech, it’s important to: 1) understand where your audience is, 2) understand where it’s possible for your audience to get to, and 3) figure out the best way to move them from A to B.

In the News: Make It Your Own

In researching my previous post on the Feynman Technique, I happened upon another insight uncovered by Shane Parrish. This time, the idea is even older, from Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, published in 1580:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?

There are several insights we can take from this passage, depending on whether the “man” is the speaker or the audience. In my post on the Feynman Technique, I noted that in order to teach better, we need to learn better. Reading Montaigne with this idea in mind, we realize that in order to teach well, it’s important to fully digest your topic and “make [it] your own.” While it’s possible to simply parrot another teacher’s ideas, this approach almost always falls flat. Your teaching becomes more powerful when you put your own spin on it.

The relevance of this passage to your audience is even clearer. In order for your audience to truly understand your topic, they must also find a way make it their own. And of course, as I note in The Science of Speaking, this is actually your responsibility as a speaker, and there are many ways that you can fulfill it, for example, through discussions, role plays, demos, and imagination.

When you as the teacher make knowledge your own, and then use that understanding to help your students make it their own too, that’s when learning truly comes alive.

In the News: The Feynman Technique

In a recent Medium post republished on Quartz, Shane Parrish writes about the Feynman Technique for mastering a subject, inspired by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s way of thinking. According to Parrish, the Feynman Technique has three steps:

Step 1: Teach It to a Child — Think about how you would teach your subject to “an eight-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.” In doing so, Parrish notes, “you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good—it heralds an opportunity to learn.”

Step 2: Review — “Now you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms,” advises Parrish.

Step 3: Organize and Simplify — Once you’ve gained a deeper—and simpler—understanding of your topic, “organize them into a simple story that flows.”

As an optional Step 4, you can Transmit what you’ve learned, actually explaining your subject to an eight-year old (or someone else who doesn’t know anything about your subject). As Parrish notes, “the ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.”

If you’ve read The Science of Speaking, you’ll immediately recognize these ideas from the chapters on technical communication (and organization). I’m including them again here because: a) they’re worth repeating, b) I like how the Feynman Technique organizes them into an elegant framework, a three-step method that’s easy to remember.

I also like the explicit addition of Step 2, which is something I only imply in The Science of Speaking: to teach better, you need to learn better. Which leads us to another important insight: just as I’ve said that it’s not your audience’s responsibility to be interested in your topic, it’s your responsibility to interest them, the same thing holds true for informing them. It’s not the audience’s responsibility to understand your explanation, it’s your responsibility to explain it so they can.