This essay appeared in the Journal of the New England League of Middle Schools in 2008. As that is no longer available, I am making it available here.
Ackerman, G. (2008). How I spent My summer: Life teaches a teacher. Journal of the New England League of Middle Schools, 19(1), 5-7.
My summer break started early. On May 29, I was the happy and healthy information technology teacher and technology coordinator at the school in the town where I live. I was eagerly anticipating a summer of active learning focused by my dissertation research, a New England League of Middle Schools board meeting, and several long-needed upgrades to the computer network at school. On May, 30 I was a patient in an intensive care unit recovering from a stroke. Almost three months afterwards, a nurse from my neurologist’s office recalled the day I had my stroke because the doctor spent the afternoon excitedly telling his colleagues about the “amazing save” his team had in the emergency room that morning.
As anticipated, my summer was full of active learning, but the lessons were unexpected. I learned a little about technology and how it can serve teachers and students. I learned a little about NELMS and how it serves its members. I learned to walk again. I reflected on how I learned to walk. I learned empathy for those who find tasks difficult. I learned there are steps we can take to better prepare ourselves and our students for an unknowable future.
Vygotsky Was Right
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who died too young in 1934. Fortunately, he recognized his failing health (due to tuberculosis) and spent the end of his life recording his ideas about the human brain, language, and cognition. Vygotsky’s major contribution to education was the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). ZPD is based on the idea that within any human endeavor, there is a range of activities, and for each individual, some activities are easily within his or her capabilities and other activities are beyond his or her capabilities. The activities between those that are too easy and those that are too hard comprise the ZPD. Vygotsky argued learning occurs only when a task falls within one’s ZPD. The activities within an individual’s ZPD are different from the activities in another’s ZPD, and each individual’s ZPD changes over time.
In the weeks after my stroke, my ZPD for walking changed drastically. It took only a few hours to destroy skills honed by four decades of strolling, hiking, and walking the dogs. Two days before the stroke, I had taken a five-mile walk, but two days after the stroke I stepped from the hospital bed to a chair with great difficulty and with the support of a nurse. Over the next weeks, I observed my changing ZPD in vivid (and frequently painful) detail. In turn, I saw labored steps with a rolling walker, awkward steps holding the horizontal bars in the rehabilitation gym, walking with a cane, careful steps on tile floors, and walking on a grassy hill pass from beyond my capability into my ZPD then to easily within my capabilities.
As a student of pedagogy, I was familiar with Vygotsky’s ZPD. As a teacher of teachers, I had explained ZPD to scores of graduate students. As a stroke patient, I came to deeply understand the reality of ZPD and the many factors that influence the ZPD with a clarity I never has previously. When practicing walking skills that were easy, I quickly became impatient and bored. When challenged beyond my ZPD, I struggled I was disheartened and persevered only because of my intense motivation to return to normal activities. (I was fortunate that I had experience with well-developed walking skill—I knew what I was working towards. Students are not often afforded that insight.) When therapy activities fell within my ZPD, I was eager to show my new capabilities to visitors. I was eager to start the next activity. I was eager to continue to practice the exercises on my own when the therapy session had ended.
For weeks of my recovery, my therapists were my teachers. In therapy, I experienced the impatience learners feel in our classrooms when the assigned tasks are too easy. In therapy, In experienced the helplessness of one who is overwhelmed by an assigned task that is too difficult. In therapy, I experienced the dynamic nature of the ZPD; when tired or hungry or thirsty or otherwise uncomfortable, I was (and still am) a less capable walker. In therapy, I learned only tasks within a student’s ZPD will result in meaningful progress.
Exercises Help, Authenticity Matters
To help me learn to walk again, my therapists assigned two types of tasks: exercises and authentic tasks. Exercises were highly contextualized tasks; one of my favorite exercises was standing on a thick foam pillow, first on one foot then on the other. When my ZPD allowed, my therapists varied the exercise by having me stand on the pillow with my eyes closed. These exercises isolated the muscles in my ankles and I could feel with intensity those muscles work to keep my body balanced. Authentic tasks were those that I (and you and everyone else who walks) do on a typical day; I walked on tiles and rugs, up and down stairs, over grass and gravel (when I really felt my ankles working to keep me balanced), and up and down hills. The mixture of tasks in my therapy seemed very familiar: Over my two decades in education, I have assigned exercises, I have assigned authentic tasks, and I have participated in numerous debates over the role of each in curriculum.
Through my experiences in therapy, I concluded both exercises and authentic tasks are absolutely essential to learning. Through exercises, learners build the connections that will allow success in authentic tasks. Through authentic tasks learners strengthen those connections in complex and diverse situations. Because my therapists took me for walks, I was able to feel the similarities between standing on foam pillows and walking on grass. Both my therapists and I commented on the similarities. Because I understood the similarities between the exercises and the authentic tasks, I approached the exercises (which mostly seemed disconnected from anything anyone ever needed or wanted to do) with enthusiasm.
My first tentative steps were coached with advice like “stand tall and straight,” “lift those toes,” “snap that foot forward,” “imagine a book on your head.” Being conscious of those rules, and concentrating on following each quickly overwhelmed me as a beginning walker. Only when those rules became natural did my gait return and was I able to navigate an obstacle-strewn path. The rules were established during therapy exercises in which the actions were isolated, they became natural only after I practiced walking. Although an educator may introduce a skill using highly contextualized exercises and teaching the rules to complete the skill, the effective educator gives all learners ample experience to strengthen the skills through authentic tasks.
Cooperation, Not Competition
We are all familiar with international tests scores that are regularly published to compare the performance of our educational system to the educational systems in other countries. Frequently, someone or some group interprets the results in terms of competitive advantage, concludes the results show evidence we are losing competitive advantage, and reports the (dubious) conclusion with plentiful indignation. Although I have expended significant professional energy to achieve the goal of giving my students and my colleagues a competitive advantage, and I have been sympathetic to attempts to improve the competitive advantage of our students (including my own children), I now conclude efforts to build this competitive advantage are displaced.
One indisputable conclusion that can be drawn from international test results is there are many very intelligent and skilled individuals living in other cultures. My experiences as a stroke patient further support this conclusion. While being treated at the hospital associated with a medical college in northern New England, I was frequently the oldest person in the room (since my stroke I celebrated my 43rd birthday) and I was usually in a Caucasian minority.
I can imagine the young doctors and medical students who treated me have younger siblings who are the age of my children. I can further imagine my children will be interacting with those siblings to create the global culture in the coming decades. When I imagine these interactions, I sometimes see my children competing against the siblings; I sometimes see my children cooperating with the siblings. In the thought experiments through which to ponder these interactions, I always find the cooperative interactions turn out best: my children benefit, the siblings benefit, each culture benefits, and our collective culture benefits. My thought experiments are not scientific, but they are informed by my reading which suggests cooperation has been an effective mode of survival over the three-billion-year history of life on Earth and they are informed by my experiences benefiting from a highly cooperative and highly diverse group. My hope for my children is that my children find a place in the thoughtful, cooperative, and diverse groups in which I spent my summer of learning.
More than two decades in education have allowed me plenty of opportunity to deal with stressful situations and to observe how others deal with stressful situations. The success of one’s reactions to stressful situations is largely dependent on the extent to which one was proactive in preparation for the situations. The proactive individual is more successful in surviving (figuratively and literally) stressful situations and recovering quickly and completely. Of course, the difficulty with being proactive is that one can never know the situations for which one is preparing. Certain proactive activities seem to have prepared me for surviving and recovering from my stroke. I believe these activities prepare me for life and for work as an educator as well.
The benefits of exercise to one’s physical well-being are well-reported in the media. Scientists are beginning to discover also cognitive benefits of exercise also. Exercise has been connected with improved test scores for students, decreased need for therapeutic drugs to treat mental illness, and reduced occurrence of dementia. Survival for our ancient ancestors depended on the ability to hunt and gather; hunting and gathering requires movement. Our brains and bodies evolved to survive in an environment in which we moved to find food and to avoid becoming food. The exercise necessary for our survival on the savanna early in human history is equally necessary for survival in the classrooms of the 21st century.
Among the effective steps one can take to be a proactive professional is to be an active learner and to build a network of similarly active learners. As a stroke patient, I was treated by many teams of professionals. These teams treated me using procedures that have been developed only within the last decade and other procedures that have even shorter histories. I wonder how my health would be different had these medical teams used only those procedures the members learned during their initial professional preparation. Each member of these medical teams was expert in his or her role, and each knew where to turn when additional expertise was needed. Together these teams had a synergy that can be achieved only through proactive preparation.
I am a digital emigrant; my children are more native to the digital world than I am, but I am more native than many adults. Modern digital technology provides ubiquitous and instantaneous connections that are an essential part of life in the 21st century. Support for this lesson comes from my, and my family’s, experiences in the hours and days after my stroke. I was transported from our local hospital to another in a medical evacuation helicopter. The emergency room physicians where I was sent were able to speak with my wife while she was riding in the car on the two-hour trip to that hospital (my 17-year-old son drove). My family was informed of my condition and my physicians were informed of relevant information from my health history. In the 21st century we have access to communication systems that can be very useful in stressful situations, but one must be comfortable using the technologies before being placed in the stressful situation.
Remember Vygotsky. Be cooperative. Exercise. Be an active learner. Build a network of colleagues. Use the communication tools we have available. These are the lessons life taught me over the summer; may I remember them this and every school year.