support / səˈpɔːt / verb
to give encouragement to someone because you want them to succeed
A few days ago on social media I saw the most wonderful video shared of a young child walking along with their caregiver and ‘practising jumping’. Each time they came to a kerb they would stop, contemplate the task at hand together, then attempt the jump. On the jump down the kerb, the child and caregiver both successfully jump down, but on the upward jump, the child waits, contemplates, but even though a successful jump is demonstrated for them, then decide not to jump up, reverting instead to stepping up one foot at a time. The pair then continued their journey. It was such a simple interaction, but also powerful and it made me smile. It also got me thinking about journeys through academic life, and how we support and mentor those around us.
Every day as an academic, we are supporting others. That might be students or colleagues and may be formal or informal. I feel, we are particularly privileged as academics in sharing an amazing journey of discovery. In higher education, we push learners in their abilities, stretching them to work at the edge of their comfort zone to build knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours that are going to help both progress them through their course, and to gain skills for their future careers.
Like the caregiver in the video, we give guidance, reassurance and demonstrations of the skills we want our learners to achieve. Sometimes these skills might be easy, and the jump is successfully accomplished quickly. Other times tasks are more challenging, more complex and barriers can come into play that make success harder. And of course, whilst some of the ‘steps’ and ‘jumps’ may feel small to us as educators, they can feel huge to the individual learner. Here pushed out of their comfort zone, they are likely to feel at their least confident, but actually be at their most likely to learn. This doesn’t however make the jump easier.
I am reminded here of the work of Zygotsky and his ‘zone of proximal development’. Zygotsky was a social constructivist psychologist working on learning theory around social interactions. He defined the zone of proximal development, or ZPD, as the difference between what a learner can already do and what they can do with guidance and encouragement from a skilled teacher or peer. Thus, the learning interaction has several key parts: the learner’s potential, the role of interaction with others, a supportive environment in which to learn and the task being achievable and desirable.
Let’s think back to the child in the video trying to jump. The child is clearly in their ZPD, working on a skill they are close to mastering, and they have a skilled teacher, a supportive environment, the potential to successfully complete the skills and the desire to do so. They show success on the way up but not yet on the way down, both are treated as victories. How does this translate to the way we support learning in higher education?
Do we guide learners through, step by step, acknowledging the challenges adequately? Do we offer alternative solutions to challenges and problems and consider the preferences and prior abilities of our learners as they develop? Does supporting others push us out of our comfort zone into our own ZPD?
Perhaps one of the key things here is to acknowledge that stepping into your ZPD is both challenging and unsettling. We need to be watching, sharing the journey to look out not only for the successful steps, but to review and support the steps and jumps that take longer to achieve or that are being circumnavigated. This involves us really knowing the learners, listening to their queries, building confidence and offering reassurance and praise at all successes however small they may seem. After all, watching others grow in confidence, knowledge and skills and being part of that journey is surely one of the greatest privileges for all academics.
5 Top tips for building confidence and supporting learning
Read more about the Zone of Proximal Development:
McLeod, S. A. (2019). What Is the zone of proximal development?. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html