In order to develop learners who can think in complex and creative ways, and who are knowledgeable with deep understanding of the world in which they live, it is necessary to expose students to learning opportunities which explore problematic issues of knowledge in a challenging manner. Adolescents need learning challenges in an environment characterised by high expectations and constructive, honest feedback (Barratt, 1998: 30). This involves learners in evaluating the nature of the evidence they use and in the investigation of questions to which the answer is not clear cut or predetermined. The level of complexity of the research task should be within the range Vygotsky defines as the "zone of proximal development" - the optimum range for effective learning to take place. The ZPD is the range of potential each person has for learning. (Wertsch, 1991)
The “ZPD” is a ‘challenge’ area situated just beyond what the student knows or can do now but not so far beyond as to be impossible to reach. Using the analogy of a high jumper, the ZPD would involve raising the bar high enough above the jumper’s current ‘personal best’ to present a meaningful goal and challenge, but not so far that it becomes a seeming impossibility and the jumper gives up. Central to such a philosophy of learning is the belief that academic self-esteem rises from successfully meeting a challenge. (Gross, 2000). This concept would seem to be supported by Renate Caine’s investigations into ‘brain-based learning’ (1994). Caine argues that Learning is enhanced by challenge but inhibited by threat. Where students feel disempowered and a sense of helplessness (threat) they ‘downshift’ and underachieve or drop out.
Inquiry based investigations can address this need for appropriate challenge by providing differentiated questions for research,
differentiated methodologies for investigation, and differentiated products which present research findings. Research conducted by the
Centre for Performance Assessment suggests schools which demonstrated high levels of student success in a wide range of assessment contexts
had a “laser-like focus on student achievement”, had clear standards of excellence and “no compromises on these expectations for quality”.
The challenge for teachers in the middle years is to ensure a consistent focus on intellectual quality and rigor is maintained.
BY SUE BURVILL-SHAW
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