What is a Zone of Proximal Development?

This is a learning theory Vygotsky came about, which states that kids learn each time they take up hard tasks above their personal abilities and get a little help to successfully finish them up.

According to Vygotsky, the ZPD (zone of proximal development) is defined as the difference between the existing level of cognitive development and the probable level of cognitive development. This theory says that students can achieve their learning goals by completing problem-solving assignments with the help of their teacher or by working with more capable peers. It was Vygotsky’s strong belief that a student won’t reach the same level of learning if he works alone. Once a student leaves his zone of present development, he passes through the zone of proximal development to reach his learning goal.

There are two chief components of the zone of proximal development: the student’s probable development and the part played by interaction with others. In ZPD, learning occurs after the student’s present knowledge is identified. Probable development refers to just what the student is able to learn.

Vygotsky developed several core concepts that were expanded upon by others following him, which have helped bring this learning theory to completion. One is the concept of “the more knowledgeable other,” which refers to someone with a higher level of knowledge compared to the students, who can give them instruction and act as their guide and mentor during their learning process. This ‘someone’ can be a teacher, parent, skilled instructor, another adult, or even a more competent peer.

The second concept is the use of scaffolding as a tool for growth. An expert helping students in their ZPD often uses instructions, activities, tools, and resources to support the learning process. This is called scaffolding. Some examples of scaffolding that teachers may use are:

  •         Making small groups of students and having them talk about a new concept before engaging in it
  •         Modeling how to complete a similar assignment or solve a similar problem
  •         Using visual aids to assist students in a task’s conceptualization before engaging in it

Social interaction is another key concept worth noting. Vygotsky believed social interaction between students and “the more knowledgeable other” was vital. Though this ‘other’ could be an adult, Vygotsky also highlighted the power of peer learning. For instance, social interaction between the students and an adult expert is initially crucial when learning a new concept. However, if some students understand the concept while others are still stuck in their ZPD, the most conducive environment for learning may be created by peer interaction.

There’re different ways teachers can apply ZPD in their classrooms. For example, when teaching the alphabet, a teacher may give the students traceable worksheets or use a whiteboard to model the steps required to write the letters. In case some students get stuck, they could be asked to practice on the whiteboard together until they master the skill. Again, when teaching another language, a teacher could write a word on the board, read it aloud, and then ask the students to take turns reading it out loud.

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