The Zone of Proximal Development and Political Organizing

It might be useful to those of us on the left who are sincere about implementing our vision of a human-centered society to think of ourselves as teachers and learners.

One tool that teachers use is the zone of proximal development, a pedagogical concept developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vigotsky in the 1920s. The way to teach a student is to learn from that student what they already know then help them to understand the next step. If you give them work that’s too easy, they won’t learn anything useful. If you give them work which is too hard, they will be frustrated and won’t learn anything useful.

While this approach is common sense, it is rarely implemented in our public schools system, where teachers are required to teach “standards,” way over the heads of many students, instead of teaching students.

The same dialectical principal can be applied to political organizing. We start with reforms that address people’s immediate needs. By winning these reforms, people will learn the value of collective action and will readily want to apply it to larger struggles, to the fight for an egalitarian society.

In building a base for such a fight, we are both teachers and learners. We need to meet people where they are. We need to listen. When we think we understand how they see the world, we can share how we see it. We can even argue if we can do it playfully.

Sometimes we forget that we have a beautiful vision: a society where people focus on caring for each other, where no group or person has significantly more power or wealth than any other, where conflicts – neighborhood, national, and international – are resolved peacefully. Marge Piercy and Starhawk have articulated this vision as well as anyone.

How do we get there? First, we treat everyone the way we want everyone to treat each other once the primary obstacle, capitalism, has been eliminated. Then, we organize the working class around this vision. Yes, we fight for 15, for M4A, for unionizing Amazon, against military adventures, etc., but we do so as a way to share our long-term vision. We need to maintain a profound faith that people can and do change. After all, you and I did, didn’t we?

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