The zone of proximal development refers to the difference between what a learner can do and achieve without help and what they can do and achieve with the guidance and encouragement of a knowledgeable partner. In this case, ‘proximal’ refers to skills that a learner is close to mastering.
This concept was developed by Soviet psychologist and social constructivist Lev Vygotsky. He defined it as, “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.”
Vygotsky argued against the use of academic assessments to gauge a student’s intelligence. He came up with ZPD to further develop Jean Piaget’s theory of children being autonomous and lone learners.
He spent a lot of time studying the impact of school instruction on children. He noted that language concepts were grasped quite easily. However, complex subjects such as mathematics did not come quite as naturally. He thus concluded that because these concepts were evaluated using unnecessary assessments, they became even more difficult for students.
He went on to argue that there is a clear distinction between teaching and development. He said that development is a spontaneous action that stems from a child’s efforts. Hence, natural spontaneous development is important, even if not all-important. In fact, he adds that children would not learn so much if they were left to do everything on their own.
He proposed that it is important for children to interact with more knowledgeable others. Therefore, cultural experiences equipped children with knowledge and tools handed down from previous generations.
Instead of giving students examinations that were ineffective, Vygotsky advocated for activities that examine a child’s ability to solve problems independently and the ability to solve other problems with the help of an adult.
He proposed that if two children perform the same on a test, their levels of development are not necessarily the same. Unfortunately, Vygotsky died before he could complete his work on ZPD. Nonetheless, the concepts he introduced are still being used today by educators.
Any activity within the zone of proximal development matures within a particular context that includes the activity’s actual level and how susceptible the child is to types of help. It also includes the sequence of the types of help offered, the child’s willingness to collaborate, and the flexibility or rigidity of previously-formed stereotypes.
According to Vygotsky, when a learner is in the zone of proximal development for a certain task, any guidance and assistance accorded give the student enough ‘boost’ to perform the task. To assist a learner move through the zone of proximal development, three important components that aid the learning process are recommended by educators:
- The presence of a peer with more knowledge and skills than those of the learner (a knowledgeable other).
- Social interaction with a skillful instructor to allow the learner to observe and practice their skills.
- Scaffolding, or supportive activities provided by the educator, or knowledgeable other, to support the learner as he or she is led through the zone of proximal development.
More Knowledgeable Other
The more knowledgeable other (MKO), as the title suggests, is someone who has a better understanding or higher ability than the learner. This is with respect to a certain task, activity, process, or concept.
In most cases, it is assumed that the MKO must necessarily be a teacher or older adult. However, this is always not the case. In some instances, fellow learners or an adult’s children may play the role of an MKO.
Vygotsky argued that much of the learning considered important for a child happens through social interaction with a skillful tutor. The tutor may present model behaviors or provide verbal instructions to the child. He termed this relationship as cooperative or collaborative dialogue.
The child attempts to understand the instructions and actions of the adult (parent or teacher) and then internalizes the information, using it to guide or modify their own performance.
Vygotsky further stated that we can’t just examine what a child is doing on their own. We also have to look at what they can do in a social setting. Mostly, students are able to complete tasks faster when placed in groups as opposed to when they are on their own.
The teacher’s job is only to move the child’s mind forward step-by-step. At the same time, not all children can be taught the same concepts simultaneously. The teachers have to determine those who are ready for certain tasks. Using such knowledge, the teachers will know how to assist different students depending on their abilities.
Lastly, Vygotsky argued that standardized tests only measure what learners can do on their own. Group settings are needed since they help a learner to be pushed by the minds of other students, to achieve more than they can on their own.
The Theory of Scaffolding
Scaffolding is a common term that goes hand-in-hand with ZPD. However, Vygotsky never introduced this term. Instead, it was coined by David Wood, Jerome Bruner, and Gail Ross while applying Vygotsky’s ZPD to various learning contexts.
They stated that giving students the hardest tasks they can attempt with scaffolding leads to the greatest gains. Scaffolding is defined as a set of activities provided by an educator or more competent peer, to support the student and they are led through the zone of proximal development.
Such support is then later withdrawn, similar to how scaffoldings on a building are removed after the construction of a building. This means that the student will be left to complete such subsequent tasks on their own.
Scaffolding is also seen as the process that enables a child to achieve a goal or solve a task that would be beyond their unassisted efforts. Thus, scaffolding requires the controlling of those elements that are initially beyond a child’s ability, therefore allowing them to focus on completing those elements that are within their range of competence.
Scaffolding is the way that an adult guides a child’s learning through focussed questions and positive interactions. For it to be effective, the adult must start at the child’s level of understanding and build on top of that.
An example of ZPD is when children are learning to speak. As a child develops speech, so does their way of thinking. In turn, this influences the child’s manner of speech. This process opens up opportunities for a child to expand their vocabulary.
When the child learns to convey their thoughts in more effective ways, they get more reinforcing and positive feedback, which enhances their speaking skills and increases their vocabulary. The same happens with dancing. One starts by imitating what others are doing and applies only what they can. Later they add their personality to their dance moves to refine them.
In mathematics, proximal development uses mathematical examples where students have seen or worked on one or a few of such examples. In high school, minimal scaffolding is provided as students learn how to do tasks more on their own.
Later, in tertiary institutions, a student must seek the help of a tutor or find library resources when presented with challenges beyond their capabilities.
Another example of scaffolding is presented when one is learning to drive. Initially, a lot of instructions are provided to the learner. Eventually, as the learner performs more of these activities, support is gradually withdrawn until they are able to drive comfortably on their own.
Indeed, the concept of scaffolding is evident in everyday life. One does not begin by knowing everything. At first, we only learn the basics and then build on top of prior knowledge to the levels of mastery for different concepts.