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What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Start by exploring the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development.
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Let’s talk about the zone of proximal development. Let’s talk about what it is and how teachers can use it in the classroom. The psychologist definition is, the difference between what a student can do independently and what they can do with focused assistance.
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We can also think of this as a spectrum. One side will represent what students can do independently. This includes skills that are too easy for students because they’ve already been mastered. And that means there’s no learning taking place.
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On the other side of the spectrum is what students cannot do on their own. Information here is too complicated and tasks are too hard for students to complete without direct assistance from the teacher. And, again, no learning can take place. In between these two sides is what’s known as a ZPD, or the zone of proximal development, a theory created by a psychologist of the name Lev Vygotsky. It suggests that there is what he calls a “sweet spot” for learning. He says that the ZPD is where instruction is most beneficial because it is just beyond a student’s current level of individual capabilities.
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You see, Levi Vygotsky thought of learning and development in a series of steps. That is, once a student had mastered the information of one step, then, and only then, will they be ready to move on to the next step, which would be slightly more challenging in content.
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And once they’d mastered that step, then they would be able to move on to the next steps and the next step and so on.
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This next step is what Vygotsky meant when he said the “sweet spot.” And the best way to assist students at this step is by using what he calls scaffolding. But that’s not all he thought was important. In fact, did you know that a student’s social interaction with significant individuals like teachers or peers, or even parents, can profoundly shape not only the interpretation of the world, but also affect higher order thought processes? This means that students can learn a lot from working in groups or with the teacher, a lot more than they could on their own. And it brings us back to Vygotsky’s main idea of scaffolding. Scaffolding is defined as structurally supportive interactions that guide effective learning.
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As a teacher, you can use scaffolding in a multitude of ways. You can use it by modelling behaviours. It can be as simple as walking all your students through the steps on how to fold a paper airplane, making sure they follow along with all the steps. And that you’re watching to make sure that they understand every step of the way as you yourself complete the task.
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You could also simplify problems, making sure to build on students’ prior knowledge without making things too complicated. In fact, solving these slightly more challenging problems can actually be rewarding to students. And another way may be as simple as keeping their attention on the tasks.
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This means eliminating outside distractions or even keeping the task engaging and new. But what’s the point?
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The point is that as a teacher it may feel like your job is to orchestrate 100% success for a student and for your class. And that you alone are responsible for their learning and their education. But that’s not the case. Instead, by teaching in the ZPD, that is, using your instructions plus some scaffolding, and maybe even some group interactions, group projects or group discussions, you as a teacher can actually help your students get the most out of learning.
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You see, the ZPD can be very helpful because, in the end, the goal is, in fact, learning.

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.
Click the Mark as complete button to check this step off before continuing to the next step.
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