During the flow of a task, at the edge of our zone of proximal development (ZPD), via our selective attention, rehearsal, and metacognition is where learning happens. I acknowledge that this description short shrifts other important cognitive and behavioral learning processes; nevertheless, these are what I recognize as most important in creating an optimal learning experience. To be certain, many other constructs come into play such as ability, attitude, emotion, motivation, and personality.
Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) flow theory describes the conditions for flow. It occurs when there are rules, goals, feedback, and potential for participant control. His flow theory is not specific to learning, but rather generic to all of life’s activities. He described flow as an optimal experience; I translate that to “being in the zone”, which comes to us from popular culture (not the ZPD). In reading his work, I saw similarities to learning in his descriptions of flow in how it motivates one to higher levels of performance. For example, for an activity to engender enjoyment, it should provide manageable tasks, deep concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, effortless involvement, learner autonomy, metamorphosis of self, and suspension of time. As an instructional designer, I want to utilize these aspects of flow to create optimal learning experiences.
Vygotsky’s (1978) proposed that learning takes place at the edge of one’s understanding with the help of others or a support system. This is known as the ZPD. This means that learning will not take place if the activity is too easy or too difficult. Csikszentmihalyi also described flow occurring for activities within a channel with just the right type of challenge to match a person’s skills. This channel exists somewhere between anxiety and boredom. Educators understand the need for differentiated instruction to meet each individual learner’s needs, but the reality of trying to make this happen in a classroom of diverse learners is almost impossible to do all of the time. Grouping according to ability is a solution but can cause equity issues if overdone. Computer-adaptive software programs, peer mentoring, cross-age tutoring, well-designed educational games, and pull-out programs for gifted or remediation are some solutions to providing the ZPD for our learners.
Self-regulation processes include rehearsal, selection of important information, and metacognitive strategies. Self-regulation aids working memory by stretching the time the information is held in storage, as well as enhancing transfer to and retrieval from long-term memory. A helpful example of self-regulation would be self-directed speech. Students might not think this is helpful, so an educator should model this behavior or otherwise teach it explicitly. Other useful learning strategies specific to self-regulation are mnemonics, reciprocal teaching, and reflection (written, verbal, or artistic formats).
Where do you think learning occurs? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.