This evening Mel Chua spoke at Hacker School about educational psychology in application to learning to be a better coder. Among many interesting ideas, she introduced the notion of the “zone of proximal development,” a state of partial competence in the presence of some more competent party or in a collaborative environment. Of course, if you think about it, much of our learning takes place in such a zone. She had interesting things to say about how Hacker School’s educational model, which you might call “the collective drives of individuals in loose association”, encourages this particular kind of learning, neither wholly independent nor whole subordinate to an expert’s direction.
This idea led me to reflect on an important element of my own problem-solving experience. When I’m in a bind — usually not thinking as clear-headedly as I could about something — if I then imagine myself in conversation with someone I think of as smarter or more rational or more sensible than I am, I soon perceive some good, some unexpected suggestion made to me by that person. It seems to come to me from that person. Well, the person was not actually there; at times the person is even dead and disintegrated. But the suggestion I perceive them making normally helps me get past my own block.
Even though this suggestion will have arisen entirely within my own mind, my mind seems to require the catalyst of envisioning it coming from someone else. I suspect that what is really happening is that my brain is somehow reviving or reenacting the past experience of having had such a person force me to think in an unaccustomed way, and that process of reenactment leads me to a new way of envisioning the situation I am now dealing with.
I have taken to trying to convey to my students the value of this experience. I tell them in so many words that after our class has ended and they have gone off to other tasks, to “conjure me” when they face a difficult problem in the future — try to hear my voice then, to recall then what my responses to them have been now, as we are cutting our way through the jungle of Classical Chinese grammar together. If my own experience is a guide, then having with them the example of my guidance will enable their own minds to solve problems in ways that may have escaped their attention.
I mean that the past guidance of others sometimes enables us to learn — really to learn, and really to think in a fresh way — even when we are actually alone. It seems to me that the zone of proximal development doesn’t always require actual proximity to other people.
Mel’s talk tonight was a version of this public lecture given at PyCon on 20130315: “EduPsych Theory for Python Hackers: A Whirlwind Overview.”