Time to drop a little education theory. We're going to start off with Lev Vygotsky, a theorist every licensed teacher learns about in their graduate courses. Lev, like most well-known ed theorists, was primarily focused on childhood development. Nevertheless, his insights into how learning works in the human mind can be valuable for learners of any age.
Vygotsky's big idea was the "Zone of Proximal Development," which once you get it, doesn't seem like that big a revelation. Essentially, learners can only "learn" while performing activities just outside the familiar. Put another way, learners need to be playing at the right difficulty level. If you struggle at "Normal", you can't expect to do well at "Insane."
Now that's a bit of oversimplification insofar as Vygotksy's formal definition of the ZPD. But for application, it's not far off. In terms of skill acquisition, the ZPD refers to activities the learner can complete with guidance, rather than independently. On either side of the zone are activities the learner can complete independently and activities that the learner cannot accomplish even with guidance.
It's the "Goldilocks Zone" of learning.
ZPD in Practice
It's not hard to grasp the ZPD concept. More difficult is employing it in one's own learning or instructional design. Sure, you know you're "supposed" to attempt what's just outside familiar, but how do you even gauge that? And as an educator, how on earth do you calibrate what learners need to stay in that sweet spot?
This, friends, is what distinguishes teaching from instructing. Instructing is unidirectional: do this. Now do this. Teaching is interactive; it requires feedback from the learner. Guiding is not directing.
The best tool available to make sure learners remain in the zone while learning a topic is formative assessment. This also happens to be the component most often missing from security training courses/materials.
Formative assessment can take many shapes, but they all accomplish the same goal: low-risk diagnostic of understanding. Some teachers use quizzes; some use classroom discussion; some use "exit tickets" to measure momentary understanding. Regardless of the instrument, the formative assessment informs the teacher whether students are where they need to be.
And here's the trick: if they aren't, it is not really the learner who needs to "try harder." It's up to the teacher to change approaches to improve understanding.
Formative Assessment for Autodidacts
It's extraordinarily difficult for self-guided learners to stay in the ZPD. Very often we will encounter material far above our abilities, and we'll just bounce right off of it. Especially in a field as vast as technology or information security, that's inevitable. Acknowledging that reality and not letting ourselves respond with shame or despair is the trick. It isn't that you can't do the thing; it's that you aren't ready yet. But you'll get there. For now, it's time to find a resource closer to your ZPD.
But even if you can find materials that would be in your theoretical Zone of Proximal Development, the whole concept of the Zone assumes the availability of mentorship. If the Zone includes activities you can complete with guidance, who the hell is guiding you if you're self-taught?
If you can get a mentor, do it. Ask on social media. Ask at work. There are incredibly helpful people in this community. But if you can't find a mentor of any kind, it isn't impossible to be your own mentor. It does require a lot of honesty on your part, however.
Self-Administered Formative Assessments
So you've just done a thing, and maybe you succeeded easily. Maybe it was too hard. Maybe it was just right! How can you be sure? Especially if the "learning" you're doing is following tutorials, it's easy to delude yourself into thinking you've learned, when all you've done is parrot using short-term memory. After completing a learning activity, answering these questions can help determine whether you're in the zone. I'm including the ZPD indicator with each question.
- On a scale of 1-10, how "hard" was this activity? (ZPD: 6-8)
- What percentage of the material was brand new? (ZPD: 20-30)
- Could you show someone else how to do this without looking at the instructions? (ZPD: yes)
- Do you know what you need to do next? (ZPD: yes)
- Explain how this skill/activity relates to the "big picture" of the discipline. In what context would a practitioner perform this activity/use this skill? (ZPD: can explain)
There are certainly other diagnostic questions that would work as well, but these have helped me measure my own ZPD and learning progress.
Infosec Educators: Get in the Zone
This last section is for all the kickass content creators out there. If you're serious about making sure your audience is learning, some degree of formative assessment is necessary. Hard to do on a lot of platforms, but not impossible, and it's up to us to figure out how to do it. I've seen too many learners—myself included—get stuck in "Tutorial Hell" with no clear way out. Formative assessment can help clarify next steps. Whether through the questions above or some other interactive content, giving learners a way of checking their own understanding is vital. And if you interact with the assessment as the content creator, your content will be more appropriately aimed at Zone of Proximal Development of your audience. That'll lead to more engagement, which leads to better outcomes for everyone.
Get you some ZPD and formative assessment. See if things don't go a little more smoothly.