The Hack of ZPD

Let me begin with two questions.

What is learning?

What kind of instruction is optimal for a particular child?

Without doubt, such questions are immediately comprehensible to any committed teacher in virtually any country in the world, and most of them are likely to want concrete answers to the question, not only as a theoretical puzzle, but in relation to their immediate practices. If one were to look to scientific psychology and educational research for advice in relation to this practical problem, what would the answer(s) look like?

This simple question raises several profound problems. Normative and political issues about the goals of instruction and the resources available for realizing these goals must be resolved. A theory of learning is needed that can explain how intellectual capabilities are developed.

Can we come up with a vision or a platform where dialogue, diversity and collaboration become the driving principles to let a child explore his deep aptitudes as much as s/he can.

If not can we help educate parents to let them know about the ZPD (Zone of proximal development) process. I have been a fan of Lev Vygotsky’s ZPD process for a while now. I have used it to teach myself and experiment this with my parents and family in helping them to learn something with their skill-set at their current level along with the principles of Behavior Design and Gamification.

In a classroom of 30 students, each student has a learning pace and style that is most appropriate for him or her, yet differentiating instruction for all 30 can be a formidable challenge. At the same time, we also know that teaching without taking into account what students already understand and what they still
need to work on is ineffective.

ZPDPsychologist Lev Vygotsky coined this term in the 20th century to describe the sweet spot where instruction is most beneficial for each student – just beyond his or her current level of independent capability.

His work being in Russian was one of the major reasons it took a long time for others to know until it got translated into other languages. This was later took further and using scaffolding, it was applied and was found that with the aid of appropriate scaffolding, students can gain skills and knowledge by completing tasks (with assistance as needed) until they are eventually able to complete them independently.

“the aim of scaffolding is the ultimate transfer of responsibility for the task to the child as adult support decreases and child capability increases”

The common thread between formative assessment practices and the practice of identifying and teaching within the ZPD is the idea that in order for teaching and learning to be effective, instruction should focus on skills and knowledge that are attainable for students (not too easy, not too difficult, but just right). With constant feedback, or scaffolding, we know that students’ learning and understanding
can continue to develop at an appropriate pace.

When I first read more about this, it became clear to me that this is again Behavior Design in essence.

What if we could apply this to our school systems and take away grading completely and include teachers in the learning process as learners and teachers. Now wouldn’t that environment be organic and the learning holistic?

Of course, the learning curves can be amplified further once the learning becomes fun using other technologies that can speed up learning as per each learner’s desire. Learning that’s fun gets done. One can ask, what might the benefits be of such a model.

Here something that I came up with:

Students can be provided with:

  • challenging but reasonable tasks that stimulate thinking and motivate efforts to learn
  • meaningful instruction and feedback that helps drive further development at an appropriate pace
  • a learning environment where they are valued as individuals, a collaborative
    group, and a class
  • a learning environment where their creativity and thought processes are
    acknowledged and accepted

Teachers could:

  • identify and use areas of strength and weakness to tailor learning experiences at the individual and group level
  • engage students in social interactions to enable learning
  • better understand students as individual learners, learners in a small group
    setting and learners in a larger social setting
  • discover unique thought processes that different students may use to solve

The Administration could:

  • promote higher quality differentiated instruction in schools or let self designed learning drive the administration rules which can be flexed with some order in it.
  • emphasize better teacher student relationships
  • work with more motivated teachers and students

How can I locate and teach in the ZPD?

Here are some questions one can ask ? I have placed small wins that can be used to tailor the material and generate insights.

  1. Do I know what I want my students to understand by the end of this unit?

    ZPD Small Win – Identify the target level of knowledge and
    understanding you want your students to attain (e.g. for the year, a specific unit or a specific concept). Chunk it down, prepare a trail of breadcrumbs.

  2. Do I have an idea of the skills and knowledge that students must have in order to reach this level of understanding?

    ZPD Small Win – Work backwards from the end‐of‐unit goal(s).
    Ask yourself: “What needs to be understood before this goal can be reached?” Develop a model of the learning progression that you
    expect students to follow in order to attain the targeted knowledge and understanding

  3. Do the tasks and activities I have created help me see what my students
    understand and what they still need to work on?

    ZPD Small Win – Create tasks, activities and problems that allow
    you to gather information about students’ understanding of the topic at hand while they are learning.

  4. Am I observing, assessing, and listening to my students in order to understand the thought processes they are using to arrive at their

    ZPD Small Win – Observe, assess, and listen to student behaviors
    and inquiries in response to the topic. Frequent assessments, whether formal or informal, allow patterns of strengths and weaknesses to
    emerge both at the individual and group level. This will help you identify students’ ZPDs.
    This can help collect a set of data points out of which consistent patterns will start to emerge over time which can be leveraged later.

  5. Am I adjusting my instruction based on what I see my students have
    grasped and what they still need to work on?

    ZPD Small Win: Modify instruction, activities and groups based on information you gather about what your students can do independently, what they can do with peers, and what they are struggling with overall.

  6. Am I providing feed forwards that uses students’ strengths to build on their weaknesses?

    ZPD Small Win: Work with small groups and individual students. Push their thinking by asking guiding questions, modeling and providing demonstrations as necessary.

    Research has shown that interactions between a child and a more competent peer or adult in which everyone is actively engaged tend to produce higher student achievement. And even if assessments are made they should be made so that the teacher gains instructionally valuable information about students’ independent thinking. + I’m curious to see what would result if a ZPD learning system like this is taken outside the classrooms and then seeing if the learning is much more accelerated or not. 🙂


The Mask Hack

I got nicknamed “The Mask” while I was in college by a friend of mine as I had the knack of replicating someone’s else’s skills in sports in a short amount of time. I thought the name was “cool” and never realized what I was doing until a year later.

Months later, while researching online about behavior design and various models of motivation. I came across Oyserman’s (2007) Identity based model of motivation. If I have triggered your OCD of needing more information about this, you can check out her site here. What I was doing was building Identity Based habits. Now, the key to building lasting habits is creating a new Identity first. Your current behaviors simply put are a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is – consider a mirror image of the type of person you believe you are either consciously or subconsciously.


Let’s understand what are Identity Based Habits?

Essentially all of your decisions and thoughts arise out of processes that begin unconsciously. In other words, while it may feel like you consciously decided to have a cup of green tea this morning in reality that decision was made well before you were aware of it by a long chain of neurological and causative factors. This is possible because regions of the brain you were not consciously aware of fired well before they had the ‘conscious decision’ to do what they were going to do.

Alright, if that shook you up, now you might ask –

Well what that demonstrates is that whether you like it or not, your decisions and behaviors really are largely if not entirely dictated by factors that exist outside of or independent of your conscious mind. In other words if you’re trying to form a new habit by sheer willpower alone, you’re already setting yourself up in a losing battle – or at least a battle over which you have very little control over the outcome.

Rather than just throw the dice and hope you roll high enough to form the habit (some D&D player somewhere is reading this and nodding), using identity based habits lets you rig the dice in your favor.

An identity based habit is formed by acting like the person you want to be until you actually become them. So, for example, if you’re currently overweight and want to get into the habit of lifting weights three times per week you would begin to think of yourself as ‘a weightlifter’ or maybe ‘an athlete’ – at the very least as ‘a fit person’.

The closest analogy I can give it to you to make sense of this is


By this analogy, I certainly don’t mean you just keep visualizing that you can do stuff and don’t have a list of action steps :-P. I argue that when behavior is identity infused, engaging in the behavior carries a positive tone to it. To change your behavior you need to start believing new things about yourself. So, for example, if you’re currently overweight and want to get into the habit of lifting weights three times per week you would begin to think of yourself as ‘a weightlifter’ or maybe ‘an athlete’ – at the very least as ‘a fit person’.

Imagine how we typically set goals. We begin by saying “I want to lose weight” or “I want to get stronger”. If you are lucky to have mentors like I do, they might say, “That’s great, but you should be more specific”.

So, when my trainer asked me, I replied “I want to lose 1 Kilo in the next 2 months”.

Now goals like these are centered around our performance or our appearance. But, these goals aren’t habits. If you are already doing a behavior then these goals can help you drive forward. To start a new behavior, it helps to start with a identity based goal.


  • Decide the type of person you want to be. 
  • Prove it to yourself with small wins.

P.S I cannot emphasize how vital it is to start with incredibly small steps. The goal is not to get results at first, the goal is to become the type of person who can achieve those things. The goal is to get yourself a set of mental frameworks to form a fail proof system around yourself.

Example: Imagine Rocky from the movie series. Now, you don’t need to have an insider who lets you in early every morning to practice your jabs like Stallone did.

My invitation to you is to develop an identity of a fit person who works out consistently, and then move on to performance and appearance later.


Want to become a writer?

Identity: Become the type of person who writes 1000 words every day.

Small Win: Write 100 words each day before you go to bed this week.

Want to become a speed reader?

Identity: Become the type of person who uses spreeder everyday.

Small Win: Spreeder should be the first thing you open when you access your computer to practice one paragraph each day this week.

Want to become stronger?

Identity: Become like Rocky (This works for me) who never misses his daily workouts.

Small Win: Do push-ups for 3 days a week alternatively

Want to be a better son/daughter?

Identity: Become the type of person who always stays in touch

Small Win: Call up your mum / dad every Sunday.

Want to learn a new language?

Identity: Become the type of person who uses duolingo everyday

Small Win: Do one lesson each day for a week.

You might notice, for some examples I have used a tech/app that lets you learn skills. This is again a tweak of mine. 😀

In my experience, when you want to become better at something, proving your identity to yourself is far more important than getting amazing results. This is especially true at first.You can even try watching motivational videos like these. You will feel great for a couple of days. Hell! You may even workout intense crazy like a monkey on steroids for a week but you will end up burning out. You can’t rely on being motivated. You have to become the type of person you want to be, and that starts with proving the new identity you have assumed to yourself.

What the mask hack does to you is => rigs the system by changing the environment, background causes and subconscious neurological factors that determine our choices before we are aware of them.

This works because in the end it doesn’t really matter if you believe it, as long as you pretend well enough to do the things the person you want to be would do, then eventually you’ll wake up one morning as that person. Using the above as an example, if you pretend like you’re the person who learns languages easily and do all the things that you imagine that kind of person would do (study up on target languages, read news in those languages, watch movies in those languages, etc.) then eventually you’ll have done so much of that you will actually be the kind of person who does those things – see how that works?

The other good way to ease into it is by using small wins as ways to prove to yourself that you can actually be the person you want to be.

Put simply, you’re making it hard to lose by playing a winnable game.

So whose identities will you absorb into your MASK today? 🙂