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Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development”

Learners are provided with research summaries along with a diagrammatical representation of each idea.
© National STEM Learning Centre

Below we have provided a summary of Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development.” You may be already familiar with this, but here we’d like you to refresh and focus on how this might inform your thoughts on challenge and learning.

Vygotsky stresses the importance of looking at each child as an individual who learns distinctively. Consequently, the knowledge and skills that are worthwhile learning varies with the individual.

The overall goal of education according to Vygotsky is to “generate and lead development which is the result of social learning through internalization of culture and social relationships”. He repeatedly stressed the importance of past experiences and prior knowledge in making sense of new situations or present experiences. Therefore, all new knowledge and newly introduced skills are greatly influenced by each student’s culture, especially their family environment.

Vygotsky promoted the development of higher level thinking and problem solving in education. If situations are designed to have students utilize critical thinking skills, their thought processes are being challenged and new knowledge gained. The knowledge achieved through experience also serves as a foundation for the behaviours of every individual.

Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) posits that human potential is theoretically limitless; but the practical limits of human potential depend upon quality social interactions and residential environment. This ZPD 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 theory, then, so long as a person has access to a more capable peer, any problem can be solved.

Lev Vygotsky and ZPD Lev Vygotsky and the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD)

The ZPD works in conjunction with the use of scaffolding. Knowledge, skills and prior experiences, which come from an individual’s general knowledge, create the foundation of scaffolding for potential development. At this stage, students interact with adults and/or peers to accomplish a task, which could possibly not be completed independently. The use of language and shared experience is essential to successfully implementing scaffolding as a learning tool.

Vygotsky defined the “More Knowledgeable Other” (MKO) as anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher or an older adult. However, this is not always the case. Other possibilities for the MKO could be a peer, sibling, a younger person, or even a computer. The key to MKO is that they must have more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does. Teachers or more capable peers can raise the student’s competence through the ZPD.

In summary

Vygotsky’s findings suggest that the curriculum should generally challenge and stretch learner’s competence. The curriculum should provide many opportunities to apply previous skills, knowledge and experiences, with “authentic activities connected to real-life environment” “… since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks”.

(Adapted from ‘The Educational Theory of Lev Vygotsky: an analysis’ M. Dahms, K. Geonnotti, D. Passalacqua. J. N. Schilk, A. Wetzel, and M. Zulkowsky, 2007.)


How might Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development” inform the way you teach and differentiate learning in your classroom?
Don’t worry if you haven’t fully formed your thinking, it’s worth capturing your initial ideas in the comments first. Then, draw upon other learners’ contributions to help you develop your thinking.
© National STEM Learning Centre
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