"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
November 20, 2013
Vygotsky, Science Fairs, and Testimony
by Emily S. Jorgensen

This past week my fifth-grader had her science fair project due. It required an experiment that correctly utilized the scientific method, a notebook filled with observations, data, graphs, and research, and an eye-catching tri-fold display board.

It also required a good deal of help and oversight by her parents to make sure she had all the components, didn’t cut herself during the experiment (in which 30 pomegranates had to be opened), had her data typed up (really, what 10-year-old knows how to use Excel?), and that the printer had enough ink for all the pretty pictures she took of her experiment.

In talking (read: griping) with other parents going through the same process this past week, I found we are all pretty much in agreement that the requirements of the science fair are virtually impossible to meet at this age without significant parental help. In my mind, this begs the question of whether it really belongs in the curriculum.

On the one hand, it doesn’t exactly seem efficacious to give children an assignment they have no hope of completing alone.

As I pondered the injustice of the fifth grade science fair, I remembered the theories of an educational psychologist named Lev Vygotsky. One of Vygotsky’s important contributions to education is the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development.

The ZPD is the area of curriculum where learning actually takes place. It is the space between what has already been mastered and what the student is not ready for. It is the material that a student cannot master on his own, but needs what Vygotsky calls “scaffolding” — where the teacher gives the students just enough information and modeling for the student to reach past what they already know and begin to understand and assimilate the new skill or knowledge.

Recently my second-grade daughter was baptized. I used to joke that we should make a bigger deal of our baptisms for children of record (I am not really a fan of the Saturday morning mass baptism thing), because it is the only saving ordinance I can “make sure” my child has.

I have since realized that this implies that I am forcing or pressuring my child to be baptized — that it is not really a result of her own beliefs and choices.

This really isn’t my position, and so I have stopped saying that.

Indeed, a lot was said to her that day by many people about what a wonderful and right choice she made. I remember wondering how well she grasps the significance of her baptism. I know she cannot see it as I do — though she may be able to tell you it is the first step toward entrance to the Celestial Kingdom — she won’t take the other necessary steps, the temple ordinances, until she is an adult.

She cannot appreciate the significance of her baptism in the same way I see her baptism, or in the same way I see my own.

Still, though she may not appreciate the gravity of her baptismal covenants in quite the same way I do, she knows of her own experience it was good and right. We tried to make it clear that no one would force her to be baptized; that she did not “have” to.

If she wanted the blessings from it and wanted to be a member of the Church, she would need to be baptized, but it truly was her choice. And, as we drove home after the ordinance, she shared with our family that she had indeed felt the Spirit when she was baptized and also when she was confirmed.

It strikes me that our children’s testimonies are much like the science fair. Our primary children cannot understand or appreciate the sum total of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as my older daughter could not hope to meet all the requirements of the science fair alone.

These things are in their Zone of Proximal Development. They need the scaffolding of parents who talk about their own testimonies at home, Primary and Sunday School teachers who give them opportunities to talk publicly about their gospel feelings and questions, a set of scriptures obtained for them so they can read to themselves, a Sunday ride to church and a way to get to Activity Days or Scouts.

What they do not need is us telling them how or what to think. They do not need us to force them to do the right thing, or to belittle them when they choose not to. They do not need us to micromanage their testimonies or pressure them to always have the answer that pleases us.

Scaffolding is not about spoon-feeding. It is giving them just enough and then trusting them to do the rest. It is a fine line and takes faith and keen listening to the whisperings of the Spirit.

Unfortunately, when I think of it in these terms I have to begrudgingly admit that maybe the science fair does belong in the curriculum after all. Even though younger children cannot hope to do it alone, this year may be the year in which they gradually learn it well enough to do it on their own the next year, or perhaps the year after that.

After all, how could they hope to do it in seventh grade if they have never done one or seen it done before? Such a student would be at an extreme disadvantage. (Yes, I know the instructions should make it easy to do on your own. Just trust me — they don’t.)

Likewise, a child’s testimony, though pure and honest, needs time and nurturing to develop into the strong commitment required by an adult commitment to the gospel.

Our job during this time is to provide a context for the budding testimony. We live our own testimony, we give the child chances to think things out for themselves and we answer their questions. But, ultimately, the testimony belongs to the child and not her parents, friends, mentors, or teachers. Just as her baptism belongs only to her.


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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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