Lev Vygotsky located the Zone of Proximal Development between a child’s “current development level and the level of development the child could achieve ‘through adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’” (Vygotsky, as quoted in Woolfolk, 44). He wrote that children are always on the verge of being able to solve certain problems, and that they just need some structure, clues and reminders to help them. This Zone of Proximal Development is the area “where instruction can succeed, because real learning is possible” (ibid). Carol Kuhlthau built on Vygotsky’s claims when she described her theory of “zones of intervention.” She studied the information gathering process of high school students, and noticed that doubt, confusion and anxiety often prevent students from knowing how to move forward in their work. When uncertainty prevails, mediators can intervene in the search process. “Mediators” can be friends, family, librarians, teachers—in other words, any capable peer or adult who can provide the student with some clues or structure to help her find her way.
These problem zones that have followed the child from elementary school to her high school research project will follow her all the way into post-secondary education and professional practice, for this is where she will encounter “indeterminate zones of practice—uncertainty, uniqueness and value conflict—[that] escape the canons of technical reality” (Schön, 6). Indeed, while Vygotsky and Kuhlthau seek to guide students through uncertainty and back onto firm ground, Donald Schön argues that firm ground, or the “Ivory Tower,” where everything is concrete and static, is not actually relevant in the real world. He proposes “deviant” education in which mentors or coaches fill the role of Vygotsky’s “capable peers” or Kuhlthau’s “mediators,” with the difference being that these mentors will not help apprentices find their way out of indeterminate zones of practice, but will rather teach them tricks—for example, problem framing, implementation and improvisation—that will make them more comfortable operating from within these indeterminate zones.
Indeterminate zones exist wherever cultures meet, clash and grapple—these are what Mary Louise Pratt calls “contact zones,” and she also sees the value of learning how to operate from within them. Although contact zones are often fraught with asymmetrical relations of power and thus engender colonization, slavery and miscomprehension, the contact zone can also be a creative space where participants resist authority and produce autoethnographies, critiques, collaborations, parodies, denunciations, imaginary dialogues, vernacular expressions, etc. Pratt helped to develop and teach a course at Stanford called “Cultures, Ideas, Values” that actually sought to function like a contact zone. She wrote that this was the most exciting teaching she’s ever done, but also the most difficult. If asymmetrical power relations can be left aside, the contact zone will transgress imagined utopian boundaries in which “the situation is governed by a single set of rules or norms shared by all participants” (Pratt, 13). When participants in the contact zone achieve mutual respect, this meeting, clashing and grappling of their cultures and values can create “exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom”—what Pratt calls “the joys of the contact zone” (Pratt, 17).
bell hooks has not written about a particular educational “zone,” but she has written about transgressing traditional boundaries to find freedom in education. She urges
all of us to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions, I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom. (hooks, 12)
Like Schön and Pratt, hooks sees the most educational value not in learning how to return to what is certain, but in purposely transgressing the boundaries of certainty to explore what is unknown or uncertain. She writes that the classroom itself is a radical place of possibility—a participatory space for sharing knowledge. For hooks, the classroom should always be a “contact zone,” where mutual respect presides between teacher and students and all will grow and be empowered by the process.
This model of the teacher-student relationship is one that hooks encountered and liked when she first read Paolo Freire. Freire rejected the notion that education is a narrative process in which the teacher narrates her views to passive students. Instead, he claimed that education should always be cognitive: “Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information” (Freire, 74). Together, teacher and student, or “teacher-students,” learn to cognize cognizable objects, which are not the private property of the teacher but rather the object of mutual reflection in dialogue and solidarity. And what is cognition? It is the act of consciously exploring reality, which is a process undergoing constant transformation; it “denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent and unattached to the world” (Freire, 75). Cognition celebrates the “zone of indeterminate practice” because, in reality, all is indeterminate.
Vygotsky believed in the importance of “more capable peers” to a child’s educational development, and Kuhlthau thinks mediators can help students when they become confused or anxious. While neither “peers” nor “mediators” are highly authoritative, Vygotsky and Kuhlthau’s theories still rely on one who knows more to guide one who knows less through an “indeterminate” zone in education. Schön agrees that low-authority teacher figures are important, although he calls them mentors or coaches and believes that their purpose is to show students the ropes in a never-ending zone of indeterminacy. Indeed, whether “indeterminate zones of practice,” “contact zones,” “transgressed boundaries” or “acts of cognition,” many educational theorists are praising that special territory where complex ideas thrive and concepts are fluid. But it is Freire who would say that, within this zone (what he calls “reality”), there is no place for “more capable peers,” “mediators,” “mentors” or coaches”—i.e. “someone who knows more” to guide someone who knows less. In Freire’s view, to deny this truth is to return to the ivory tower, where only stasis and domination can prevail.