The learner, whether student or reader, can come with you from their current zone, what they already know, to the next developmental place. But if you try to jump them further than that place — beyond [Lev Vygotsky’s] Zone of Proximal Development, too fast or too carelessly — you’re likely to lose them. Not because folks aren’t sophisticated or smart or even willing. It’s just a simple fact of cognitive load and scaffolding: To introduce a novel or surprising idea, you have to build the conceptual bridge from what’s provisionally shared to the new and unexpected.
I think about this all the time. Who are my readers, and what assumptions might already be in their minds, and what’s the next possible leap we could make together? I didn’t think the audience for an article about time and design in a pandemic could travel all the way with me to crip time. It’s there in the disability literature for folks who want to go deeper but couldn’t be seamlessly reached in my piece.
It’s not as if all reading is teaching in a unidirectional, condescending way, from writer to reader — far from it. Every writer is writing precisely to think through and try to understand some set of ideas better, for her own sake as well as the reader. But the Zone should still be in one’s mind, no matter your narrative medium. And too often writers get tied up in an inside-baseball version of their topic, because the tacit reader in their mind’s eye is their peers: the people they speak to in professional development contexts, or the other books in their field, or their various social circles. But the scaffolding for a wider audience requires a much more rigorous attention to the Zone of PD — if, that is, you want to reach the reader who’s not already with you.
I love this whole post from Sara. But it occurs to me that there really aren’t very many writers who are interested in reaching the reader who’s not already with them — maybe, even, fewer today than in the past. When you (consciously or unconsciously) perceive the business of writing and reading as the consolidation of group identity, then reaching out to the unconvinced is not only difficult but perhaps undesirable.