Being a camp counselor at Camp Sea Gull altered my entire career path. At camp, Captain Lloyd, the camp director, used to tell me, “Bo, you teach kids how to swim; you do not teach swimming to kids.” Captain Lloyd was insistent that we taught children, not a subject.
Years later, my mentor in graduate school, Frank Pajares, insisted that we immerse ourselves in the writings, theories, and practices of Lev Vygotsky. Of particular importance,Dr. P wanted us to truly understand the ZPD – zone of proximal development. The ZPD is that cognitive “place” where a learner stretches to comprehend something just beyond his mental reach. Usually some coaching and scaffolding is required. Here is where learning takes place.
Now, as I reread W. James Popham’s book, Transformative Assessment,I am reminded that formative assessment is not so much an instrument or tool, as it is a PROCESS. Formative assessment provides the feedback for both learners – teacher and student – so that we can stay in the zone…the ZPD. When we are content driven, mere teachers of a subject, we don’t tend to evidence much real caring for the zone. We just have to get through the material. When we use learning targets, formative assessment, and the magic of feedback, we begin to teach the child. We start to realize the importance of differentiation because we are teaching learners who might have slightly different ZPDs.
When we teach a subject, we get the pace and methodology right for some in the class. For others, the material is too easy. For others still, it is too difficult. When we teach children, we pay attention to where they are as unique and individual learners. We require the process of formative assessment so at we can tweak, alter, and adjust instruction so as to stay in the sweet spot – in the zone – as much as possible.
Here is a great article that helps tie it all together: http://www.edweek.org/media/formative_assessment_next_generation_heritage.pdf