Knowledge without love: A little twist on the Zone of Development.

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mentalhealth / wellbeing

“I believe God is a fan of people connecting and I think the enemy of God is a fan of people breaking off into paranoid tribes. And I think all the clanging pots and pans in the kitchen to scare people from the territory we feel compelled to defend is playing into the hands of dark forces. I think a lot of the shame-based religious and political methodology has more to do with keeping people contained than with setting them free. And I’m no fan of it.”

– Donald Miller

There’s this concept by development theorist – Lev Vygotsky, called the “zone of proximal development.” That zone is considered the space in which a child is best positioned to learn something new – and the scope of that zone is defined by being a certain amount between what they already know, and what they could come to learn with support from a further advanced peer or teacher.

In this sense, both what the child already knows, and what they have the potential to grasp are equally important proponents in the process of learning.

If we transpose that idea in regards to a general sort of process of learning that happens with all of us, we could conclude that any new knowledge that is shared without a sensitivity to what a person already knows and what it is that has shaped that, we cannot be sure that we are providing the safe space in which one is best positioned to integrate what they don’t yet know, with what they already know.

In other words, an awareness of where someone is at provides an important frame of reference in the context of learning something new and beyond.

I think the hard thing is – for both learner and knowledge giver, this “zone” is a messier space to be in, because it results in a lot more “grey” than in black and white. To dwell there calls upon some sort of vulnerability for both parties. It asks us to give up “defending our territory,” and to become exposed to anothers.

It exposes the knowledge giver to questions and hurdles and roadblocks that they wouldn’t have to think about otherwise. It might even cause the knowledge giver to re-consider what it is that they are saying in light of the new data that is revealed in actually listening to the person before them. It might cause the knowledge giver to have to revise and adjust their message.

For the learner, it is less straight, less slick than just doing what they’re told mindlessly. For the learner it requires some sort of wrestle between what they know and how that lands with what they don’t yet know. As with the knowledge giver – it might also warrant the asking of new questions that didn’t need to be addressed before, which, for the learner might lead to a parting of ways from what has been known and familiar and safe for the last little while.

Moreover, any attempts by the learner to illustrate the outcome of whatever knowledge is telling the learner to be, without any allowance being made to engage in a conversation with how taking on that knowledge is being experienced (and what it brings up) will have the effect of driving a wedge between their actual experience and the knowledge being proposed having any impact.

In such instances knowledge fails to be affective in the way it has the potential to be, and, as an added ‘bonus,’ who the learner has known themselves to be up until this point gets relegated to the sidelines. What we want, though, is for knowledge to be taken on only once it has the capacity to become integrated, and when it doesn’t come at the cost of the kind of self-denial that has the potential to lead to all kinds of mental health problems further down the track.

Either way – we do ourselves and others a disservice when we don’t factor in how what has come before shapes our own and others capacity to interpret something new. What is needed is a safe, and dare I say it, kind, space (a zone) between what is known and what is not – between learner and knowledge – so that new understandings can be grasped and what it is that has shaped the past can be respected. In this sense, both the role of knowledge giver and learner are equally important.

If we go too far one way or the other, the zone loses its resonance and both learner and knowledge giver lose the potential for what magic their genuine coming together could produce. I wonder if that in some way is part of our cultural problem presently – that there are seemingly less and less places where it feels safe to enter that scary space.

I like what Paul tells the Corinthians because it seems to imply that with knowledge should come also love and that knowledge without love is kinda void: ”If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2

I can’t help but think how much love might warm the otherwise chilly climate of these inevitable, vulnerable spaces where new knowledge and the learner intersect. I can’t help but think that love might provide the appropriate scaffold within which both knowledge proposer and learner might safely come to converse and grow. Maybe without it, we run the risk of derailing both knower and learner outside of the scope of the “zone of proximal development,” where both learner and knower no longer have the opportunity to produce the magic their coming together could bring about. I think we might need to tread careful in these spaces – for they are sensitive to their surrounding conditions.

What do you think?

The Author

30. Counsellor + Post Grad Theology Student + Ponderer + Writer + Do-er of hair.

1 Comment

  1. Cherie Wallace says

    I think I totally agree. Great reminder of the value of listening and creating space to inform and be informed. Oh the richness of such a space.

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