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What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Start by exploring the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development.

Start by exploring the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a term coined by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1934) to describe a particular level of learning difficulty:

The ZPD describes “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, 1978).
Image credit: Mind Help, N.d.
So, what does this actually mean?
On one end of the difficulty spectrum, the work is too easy and the student does not learn anything. On the other side of the spectrum, the work is too difficult and the student cannot learn anything. In the middle is the ‘sweet spot’ where students are presented with a real challenge and given the necessary guidance and support to achieve mastery. This ‘sweet spot’ is the ZPD.
Note: The word ‘proximal’ means ‘close’ — the focus is on the level of difficulty that students are close to mastering, but have not been able to master on their own (McLeod, 2019).

Advantages of Learning in the ZPD

Using this approach in your classroom is advantageous because it:
  • Focuses the learning around the student, rather than around the teacher;
  • Reduces ‘teacher talking time’ to ensure teacher instruction is timely and relevant;
  • Allows individual processing time for learners to ‘cross’ the Zone into mastery;
  • Allows for peer teaching and leverages collaborative approaches to learning;
  • Frees up teacher time (monitoring) to allow for in-depth diagnosis of areas of weakness;
  • Facilitates support of individual students within a classroom environment; and
  • Develops cognitive memory and gets learners thinking about the lesson.

Join the Discussion

Think of a learning outcome that is relevant to your students, such as ‘Students write a poem’, and identify a learning activity that would fall in the ZPD, such as “Students receive a poem with many of the words left blank and choose words from a collection to fill in the blank spaces.”
Share your answer in the Comments section below, along with a short paragraph to contextualise your answer.
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