When I was training to be a teacher, we spent some time studying the theory of teaching and learning. Of note was the concept – known as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) – expounded by Soviet psychologist and social constructivist Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934).
This is defined as being “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving, and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers”.
In other words, you can improve if you get a more knowledgeable person to help.
It’s not exactly a mind-blowing concept, is it? It’s the reason we send teachers into classrooms rather than just corral a load of schoolchildren and throw some text books at them. Without the teacher, the kids would probably find the text books unfathomable. Then they would set fire to them.
But this isn’t just about adults teaching children. Vygotsky says “or in collaboration with more capable peers”. So this could be a younger child learning under the guidance of an older sibling, or one adult learning from a more informed adult.
It strikes me that freelance writers are among those who should always be striving to learn and improve. The question is where and how this can happen. The idea of “adult learning” is one not many of us will freely embrace. At best, it conjures an image of evening classes where adults who for some reason missed the educational boat in their younger years congregate in an effort to belatedly improve their chances in life. At worst, it’s a special centre for serial dock-plungers; for those adults who cannot work out how to embark even when the gang plank is rolled out for them because there is something not quite “right” in their head.
The closest that freelance writers come to learning in person from more capable peers is in writers’ groups, but how much honesty takes place in these meetings? I attended one or two back in the UK several years ago, and the reluctance to offer constructive (i.e. negative) feedback was laughable.
But if we weren’t struggling for where to go, we’d still have the issue of how to get there. I mean how we mentally, as adults, offer ourselves up to the scrutiny of someone we must accept as more capable then we are. Ouch. That pissed you off at school, right? You want to go through that all over again? Someone marking your efforts? Pointing out your shortcomings? I didn’t think so.
And that’s assuming you even know you’re doing anything wrong. It’s fairly obvious that many freelance writers have no idea they are making mistakes or they wouldn’t make them. If you don’t know that you don’t know how to use an apostrophe, you’ll carry on screwing up. Seeing them used correctly in newspapers and books won’t help because there’s no part of your brain seeking enlightenment on that front. You just won’t have that “Ah!” moment.
Having a mentor, a teacher, a more capable peer by your side is the best way to enter your ZPD. They will lead you a direct route straight in.
On the other hand, you will need to be an extremely self-aware and conscientious individual to take the solitary route into your ZPD. It can be done, but there’s going to be some meandering along the way.