Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Spiritual "Zones of Proximal Development"

A diagram of a lab beaker on a white background, filled with coloured circles of various sizes and colours.
We have all of the ingredients we need for our
individual and collective development - we just
have to recognise them and work out how to
put them together.
Following some recent online discussions, I feel like it's worth spending another post exploring some learning theory, how it relates to Quaker practice – and what we can take from it to improve that practice. Previously, I wrote about communities of practice, and now I'll be looking at the idea of zones of proximal development.
ZPDs, as they are more concisely known, as a way of talking about what it is readily possible for a given learner to learn. There is what they already know, what they can already do, and there are those things that would be a struggle to attempt, and in between is the ZPD, the things that they can reasonably learn, or the things that they could do with help and guidance. This is a much simpler idea than communities of practice – in these last couple of sentences, the fundamentals of it are covered. Of course, there's more to it than that, but that's the basics all done. Given, in many spiritual situations, liberal Quakers' aversion to “teaching”, it might seem hard to apply this, but I think it has a particular application to spiritual development that doesn't require any sense of the didactic. It is this interpretation and application that I intend to explore in this post.
I'm sure that a lot of people feel tempted to apply their studies to their faith community; if you're anything like me, you can't resist it, when the application becomes apparent. Learning theories and other elements of educational theory are a truly fascinating area to me – hence my jumping the tracks to study educational research after an undergrad in mathematics and computer science and my first masters in computer science. During my studies, I was mostly focused on the intersection of those fields, but that was not to the exclusion of other things – and the education use of computer technologies in higher education doesn't have much in the way of applications among your average Quaker Meeting. Other sorts of educational theory are much easier to apply.
The idea of the zone of proximal development is a simple enough one, as described above. To go into slightly more detail, it is a theory that attempts to both explain and inform the planning of structured lessons, and a variation in its application to take account of individuality among learners is vital to the idea of individualised education. It posits that, for any given learner, there is a limited set of things that they are well-positioned to learn. It is why we do not teach calculus without first teaching algebra; not only does one set of learning depend on the foundation of the other, but the “more advanced” learning requires that we build on foundations provided by previous education beyond simply the matter of prerequisite knowledge. It is necessary to use algebra to properly apply, never mind explain, differential calculus, but it is also necessary to have certain modes of thought that can be developed in the learning of algebra. Likewise, it is extremely helpful in the study of elementary history methodology for learners to be thoroughly introduced to the idea of sources, and how they can be treated critically, before you move on to rigorous classification of such sources into things like primary and secondary sources, before you move on to critical historiography (there should probably be some more steps in between, too). Not only, in each case, are the concepts of each step essential to knowledge construction in the subsequent steps, but the modes and habits of thought that are developed build on one another, too.
When considering learners more individually, it becomes apparently that the ZPD is not dependent solely on what things have successfully been learned so far. Not everyone with a sufficient grasp of algebra to gain a good mark in formal assessments will be well-positioned to learn calculus, and advanced historiographical theories are not readily comprehensible to all those who have made a good showing in the same prerequisite classes. Some will have a “larger” ZPD in a particular field than others, able to move forward quickly through material, while others will need to take smaller steps. This is not simply a matter of being more intelligent, or more able as a learner – though I would not deny that such phenomena exist and contribute to the situation (though it's not hard to find educational theorists who do deny such things). As well as aptitude, there are differences in inclination and the ease with which certain patterns of thought flow that I doubt we will ever truly understand. There are also psychological elements to the situation, where greater confidence will widen the ZPD – because believing that something is beyond your grasp is a fairly sure way to find it beyond your grasp.
So, as to how this applies to Quakers. This is not a case of learning our history, what we do and why we do it – though I imagine it would apply there as to any other learning. It's not really about learning in the sense of developing intellectually or gaining that sort of knowledge at all. I'm talking about applying it to spiritual development.
Consider, as in the case that inspired this line of thought, someone who comes to Friends from a faith background, or a previous religious life, in which music has been central to their experience of spirituality. They are attracted by the Quaker approach to spirituality, but the stark difference between their previous modes of worship and spirituality make it difficult for them to truly experience what they understand others experience in Meeting for Worship. Spiritually, it is possible that truly reaching contact with the divine through silent worship, even that basic passive contact that many Quakers speak of in warm terms, is beyond their zone of proximal development. Likewise, those that have trouble holding silence.
A similar issue may face those who have a long experience of religious silence, but not of the communal activity of Meeting for Worship, and not of that silence being expectant waiting. For example, those with a long experience of Buddhist meditation of one sort or another. For them, it is easy to sit in Meeting for Worship and hold the silence, but they will tend to do so in the same manner as their experience of meditation. Shifting that silence from meditative to worshipful may seem a very subtle, even arcane, difference, and thus participating fully in worship may be beyond their zone of proximal development.
This also applies beyond the basics of Meeting for Worship. For one who does not have the discipline and experience, and awareness of presence, found in Quaker worship, it can be a big stretch to taking part in Meeting for Worship for Business. I might even go so far as to suggest that some cases of poor business discipline may in fact stem from moving too quickly into that discipline, starting to participate in discernment before one is spiritually ready. Without the foundations in place, many more advanced or less commonly used Quaker methods and disciplines may be excessively difficult to reach fully, and instead people try hard and stumble through them, without really understanding or doing them “right”.
If I'm on to something here, then the implications for how we welcome newcomers and bring people into our fellowship. We must recognise that, for some people, starting with silent worship is going in at the deep end, and some people might need to paddle in the shallows or have a floatation device for a while. Quaker Quest, where it is offered, will work for some people who need such support, but not for all. We should be ready to offer people introductions to Quaker Business Method to help prepare them for Local or Area Business Meetings. We should be ready to help people find their way into silent worship through different routes, with the eventual goal of them being able to find that space and presence within without especial preparation.
When I was regularly attending Young Friends General Meeting, we shared Meeting for Worship with the LM whose meeting house we were staying in on the Sunday. Before that, the YFGM eldership committee (going by the awkward backronym name of “Quintessential”, shortened to “Quinty”) would run “Preparation for Meeting for Worship”. This ranged from walking meditation to guided visualisation to collective singing – the latter being quite popular for a time, largely as a result of who was on Quinty at the time. I think it likely that such practices might be very helpful for people who could use other activities as a way to lead in to the stillness and attention of silent worship.
In addition, relatively informal “classes” available to newcomers to explore Quaker theory and practice could be very beneficial in bringing along those new to our community, as well as giving us an opportunity to get to know them better.
We should also not limit this to its classic application to individuals. The Quaker community is a compound one, made up of many overlapping individual communities, based around Meetings and interest groups and national committees and organisations, and even international bodies. Each of these component communities is also an entity that has potential for development, and we might profitably consider the zones of proximal development for communities as well as individuals – but that would be a topic for another post.
We cannot assume that all those who come to us wishing to learn about and experience the Quaker way will be able to access it easily; more importantly, we cannot assume that all those for whom it is a suitable path will be able to do so. Ultimate inclination and fit for Quaker spirituality cannot be discerned purely from whether they readily take to silent worship. We do our community, and our enquirers, a disservice if we make that assumption, whether it be explicitly or implicitly. If we exert ourselves just a little more, we may find a more rewarding relationship for all involved.
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