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What are the limitations of self-directed learning?

As a bit of background, the ‘Zones of Proximal Development’ is a concept introduced by Vygotsky in the early 20th century. In laymens terms the model might be best understand in the following way: The zones of proximal development describe the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do only with help. In other words, “The [model] defines functions that have not matured yet, but are in a process of maturing, that which may mature tomorrow, and that which are currently in an embryonic state; these functions could be called the buds of development, the flowers of development, rather than the fruits of development, that is, what is only just maturing.”

As adult educators it is our obligation to understand these zones as a critical element of our needs assessments AND to understand and design interventions that support the transitions through each zone. While we often explore what our learners know and what they don’t know (ie., educational gaps or needs), it seems rare to see educational groups exploring how to best help learners evolve. Applying the zones of proximal development model would mean that our needs assessments and educational planning process increasingly focus on how to move learners forward from one zone, to another, to another – while understanding what structure is required to support the learning process.Zones of proximal development

At ArcheMedX, using the Natural Learning Actions model, we have developed a structured learning model that allows learners to move through content (and across zones) in both self-paced and scaffolded ways. The primary learning objects created by partners provide the principal learning experiences, but it is the sophistication afforded by the learning architecture that allows educators to create trigger points through Educator Notes, Cuepoints, and In-Lesson Polling that extend an educator’s reach and contribute to a fully scaffolded learning experience. While many learners may be able to consume the primary learning object with little additional support, many more (it seems) require the layered and connected learning experience to truly engage and learn. And this is perhaps one of the most critical insights we have derived from the thousands of learners who have completed ArcheMedX-powered education and engaged around content to more effectively reflect and apply critical lessons to practice.

Perhaps our call to action here is to ensure that the educational community expands their definition of good educational planning and design as they realize that the creation of content is simply the first step in the educators role. To ensure success they must focus more broadly on creating a complete and structured learning experience. Considering the zones of proximal development model should drive educators to seek out and leverage more structured educational interventions, without which the limitations of learning and self-directed learner growth may be undermining the overall impact of the medical education we create.

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Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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