What Is the Zone of Proximal Development? Definition and Examples

Mother helping daughter to ride bicycle in park.
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The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a learner has mastered and what they can potentially master with support and assistance. This concept, highly influential in educational psychology, was first introduced by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930s.

Origins

Lev Vygotsky, who was interested in education and the learning process, felt that standardized tests were an inadequate measure of a child's readiness for further learning. He contended that standardized tests measure the child’s current independent knowledge while overlooking the child’s potential capability to successfully learn new material.

Vygotsky recognized that a certain amount of learning happens automatically as children mature, a notion championed by developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget. However, Vygotsky also believed that in order to advance their learning even further, children must engage in social interaction with "more knowledgeable others." These more knowledgeable others, like parents and teachers, introduce children to the tools and skills of their culture, such as writing, math, and science.

Vygotsky passed away at a young age before he could fully develop his theories, and his work wasn’t translated from his native Russian for a number of years following his death. Today, however, Vygotsky's ideas are important in the study of education—especially the process of teaching.

Definition

The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a student can do independently and what they can potentially do with the help of a "more knowledgeable other."

Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as follows:

“The zone of proximal development is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

In the zone of proximal development, the learner is close to developing the new skill or knowledge, but they need assistance and encouragement. For example, imagine a student has just mastered basic addition. At this point, basic subtraction may enter their zone of proximal development, meaning that they have the ability to learn subtraction and will likely be able to master it with guidance and support. However, algebra is probably not in this student's zone of proximal development yet, as mastering algebra requires an understanding of numerous other fundamental concepts. According to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development offers learners the best chance to master new skills and knowledge, so the student should be taught subtraction, not algebra, after mastering addition.

Vygotsky noted that a child's current knowledge is not equivalent to their zone of proximal development. Two children might receive equal scores on a test of their knowledge (e.g. demonstrating knowledge of at an eight-year-old level), but different scores on a test of their problem-solving ability (both with and without adult help).

If learning is taking place in the zone of proximal development, only a small amount of assistance will be required. If too much assistance is given, the child may learn only to parrot the teacher rather than mastering the concept independently.

Scaffolding

Scaffolding refers to the support given to the learner who is attempting to learn something new in the zone of proximal development. That support might include tools, hands-on activities, or direct instruction. When the student first begins to learn the new concept, the teacher will offer a great deal of support. Over time, the support is gradually tapered off until the learner has fully mastered the new skill or activity. Just as a scaffold is removed from a building when construction is complete, the teacher's support is removed once the skill or concept has been learned.

Learning to ride a bike offers an easy example of scaffolding. At first, a child will ride a bike with training wheels to ensure that the bike stays upright. Next, the training wheels will come off and a parent or other adult may run alongside the bicycle helping the child to steer and balance. Finally, the adult will step aside once can ride independently.

Scaffolding is typically discussed in conjunction with the zone of proximal development, but Vygotsky himself did not coin the term. The concept of scaffolding was introduced in the 1970s as an expansion of Vygotsky's ideas.

Role in the Classroom

The zone of proximal development is a useful concept for teachers. To ensure that students are learning in their zone of proximal development, teachers must provide new opportunities for students to work slightly beyond their current skills and provide ongoing, scaffolded support to all students.

The zone of proximal development has been applied to the practice of reciprocal teaching, a form of reading instruction. In this method, teachers lead students in executing four skills—summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting—when reading a passage of text. Gradually, students take over the responsibility for utilizing these skills themselves. Meanwhile, the teacher continues to offer assistance as needed, reducing the amount of support they provide over time.

Sources

  • Cherry, Kendra. “What is the Zone of Proximal Development?” Verywell Mind, 29 December 2018. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-zone-of-proximal-development-2796034
  • Crain, William. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 5th ed., Pearson Prentice Hall. 2005.
  • McLeod, Saul. “Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.” Simply Psychology, 2012. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html
  • Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press, 1978.