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Zone of proximal development

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In the second circle, representing the zone of proximal development, students cannot complete tasks unaided, but can complete them with guidance.

The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without help, and what they can't do.[1] The concept was introduced, but not fully developed, by psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) during the last ten years of his life.[2] Vygotsky stated that a child follows an adult's example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help.[3] Vygotsky and some other educators believe that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning such as skills and strategies.[4]



Lev Vygotsky 1896-1934

The concept of the zone of proximal development was originally developed by Vygotsky to argue against the use of academic, knowledge-based tests as a means to gauge students' intelligence. He also created ZPD to further develop Jean Piaget's theory of children being lone learners.[5] Vygotsky spent a lot of time studying the impact of school instruction on children and noted that children grasp language concepts quite naturally, but that maths and writing don’t come naturally, that these are concepts taught in schools and tend to come along with some difficulty, while Piaget believed that there was a clear distinction between development and teaching. He said that development is a spontaneous process that is initiated and completed by the children, stemming from their own efforts. Piaget was a proponent of independent thinking and critical of the standard teacher-led instruction that was common practice in schools.[6]

Alternatively, Vygotsky saw natural, spontaneous development as important, but not all-important. He believed that children would not advance very far if they were left to discover everything on their own. It's crucial for a child's development that they are able to interact with more knowledgeable others. They would not be able to expand on what they know if this wasn't possible. He noted cultural experiences where children are greatly helped by knowledge and tools handed down from previous generations. Vygotsky noted that good teachers shouldn't present material that is too difficult and “pull the students along.”[6]

Vygotsky argued that, rather than examining what a student knows to determine intelligence, it is better to examine their ability to solve problems independently and ability to solve problems with an adult's help.[7] He proposed a question: "if two children perform the same on a test, are their levels of development the same?" He concluded that they were not.[8] However, Vygotsky's untimely death interrupted his work on the zone of proximal development, and it remained mostly incomplete.[9]


Since Vygotsky's original conception, the definition for the zone of proximal development has been expanded and modified. The zone of proximal development is an area of learning that occurs when a person is assisted by a teacher or peer with a higher skill set.[1] The person learning the skill set cannot complete it without the assistance of the teacher or peer. The teacher then helps the student attain the skill the student is trying to master, until the teacher is no longer needed for that task.[10]

Any function within the zone of proximal development matures within a particular internal context that includes not only the function’s actual level but also how susceptible the child is to types of help, the sequence in which these types of help are offered, the flexibility or rigidity of previously formed stereotypes, how willing the child is to collaborate, along with other factors.[11] This context can impact the diagnosis of a function’s potential level of development.[9]

Vygotsky stated that we can’t just look at what students are capable of doing on their own; we have to look at what they are capable of doing in a social setting. In many cases students are able to complete a task within a group before they are able to complete it on their own. He notes that the teacher’s job is to move the child’s mind forward step-by-step (after all, teachers can’t teach complex chemical equations to first-graders). At the same time, teachers can’t teach all children equally; they must determine which students are ready for which lessons.[6] An example is the often-used accelerated reading program in schools. Students are assessed and given a reading level and a range. Books rated below their level are easy to read, while books above their level challenge the student. Sometimes students are not even allowed to check out books from the school library that are outside their range. Vygotsky argued that a major shortcoming of standardized tests is that they only measure what students are capable of on their own, not in a group setting where their minds are being pushed by other students.[6]

In the context of second language learning, the ZPD can be useful to many adult users. Prompted by this fact as well as the finding that adult peers don't necessarily need to be more capable to provide assistance in the ZPD, Vygotsky’s definition has been adapted to better suit the adult L2 developmental context [12]


The concept of the ZPD is widely used to study children's mental development as it relates to education. The ZPD concept is seen as a scaffolding, a structure of "support points" for performing an action.[13] This refers to the help or guidance received from an adult or more competent peer to permit the child to work within the ZPD.[14] Although Vygotsky himself never mentioned the term, scaffolding was first developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross, while applying Vygotsky's concept of ZPD to various educational contexts.[5] According to Wass and Golding, giving students the hardest tasks they can do with scaffolding leads to the greatest learning gains.[15]

Scaffolding is a process through which a teacher or a more competent peer helps a student in their ZPD as necessary and tapers off this aid as it becomes unnecessary—much as workers remove a scaffold from a building after they complete construction. "Scaffolding [is] the way the adult guides the child's learning via focused questions and positive interactions."[16] This concept has been further developed by Mercedes Chaves Jaime, Ann Brown, among others. Several instructional programs were developed based on this interpretation of the ZPD, including reciprocal teaching and dynamic assessment. For scaffolding to be effective, one must start at the child's level of knowledge and build from there.[14]

One example of children using ZPD is when they are learning to speak. As their speech develops, it influences the way the child thinks, which in turn influences the child's manner of speaking.[8] This process opens more doors for the child to expand their vocabulary. As they learn to convey their thoughts in a more effective way, they receive more sophisticated feedback, therefore increasing their vocabulary and their speaking skills. Wells gives the example of dancing: when a person is learning how to dance, they look to others around them on the dance floor and imitate their moves. A person does not copy the dance moves exactly, but takes what they can and adds their own personality to it.[17]

In mathematics, proximal development uses mathematical exercises for which students have seen one or more worked examples. In secondary school some scaffolding is provided, and generally much less at the tertiary level. Ultimately students must find library resources or a tutor when presented with challenges beyond the zone.

Another example of scaffolding is learning to drive. Parents and driving instructors guide driving students along the way by showing them the mechanics of how the car operates, the correct hand positions on the steering wheel, the technique of scanning the roadway, etc. As the student progresses, less and less instruction is needed, until they are ready to drive on their own.

The concept of scaffolding can be observed in various life situations and arguably in the basis of how everyone learns. One does not (normally) begin knowing everything that there is to know about a subject. The basics must be learned first so one can build on prior knowledge towards mastery of a particular subject or skill.

Implications for educatorsEdit

Various investigations, using different approaches and research frameworks have proved collaborative learning to be effective in many kinds of settings and contexts.[18] Teachers should assign tasks that students cannot do on their own, but which they can do with assistance; they should provide just enough assistance so that students learn to complete the tasks independently and then provide an environment that enables students to do harder tasks than would otherwise be possible.[15] Teachers can also allow students with more knowledge to assist students who need more assistance. Especially in the context of collaborative learning, group members who have higher levels of understanding can help the less advanced members learn within their zone of proximal development. [19] In the context of adults, peers should challenge each other in order to support collaboration and success.[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Zone of proximal development. (2009). In Penguin dictionary of psychology. Retrieved from Credo Reference database
  2. ^ Yasnitsky, A. (2018). Vygotsky: An Intellectual Biography. London and New York: Routledge BOOK PREVIEW
  3. ^ L.S. Vygotsky: Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes, p. 86
  4. ^ Berk, L & Winsler, A. (1995). Vygotsky also felt that social interaction was very important when it came to learning. "Vygotsky: His life and works" and "Vygotsky's approach to development". In Scaffolding children's learning: Vygotsky and early childhood learning. Natl. Assoc for Educ. Of Young Children. p. 24
  5. ^ a b Zone of Proximal Development and Cultural Tools Scaffolding, Guided Participation, 2006. In Key concepts in developmental psychology. Retrieved from Credo Reference Database
  6. ^ a b c d Crain, W. (2010). Theories of development: Concepts and applications, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  7. ^ Berk, L & Winsler, A. (1995). "Vygotsky: His life and works" and "Vygotsky's approach to development". In Scaffolding children's learning: Vygotsky and early childhood learning. Natl. Assoc for Educ. of Young Children. pp. 25–34
  8. ^ a b Stages of development. (2010). In Curriculum connections psychology: Cognitive development. Retrieved from Credo Reference Database
  9. ^ a b Zaretskii, V. K. (November–December 2009). "The Zone of Proximal Development What Vygotsky Did Not Have Time to Write". Journal of Russian and East European Psychology. 47 (1061–0405/2010 $9.50 + 0.00.): 70–93. doi:10.2753/RPO1061-0405470604. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
  10. ^ Burkitt, E. (2006). Zone of proximal development. In Encyclopaedic dictionary of psychology. Retrieved from Credo Reference database
  11. ^ Bozhovich, E. D. (2009). Zone of Proximal Development: The Diagnostic Capabilities and Limitations of Indirect Collaboration. Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 47(6), 48-69. Retrieved from EBSCOHost Database
  12. ^ Fani, Tayebeh & Ghaemi, Farid. (2011). Implications of Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in Teacher Education: ZPTD and Self-scaffolding. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 29. 1549-1554. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.11.396.
  13. ^ Obukhova, L. F., & Korepanova, I. A. (2009). The Zone of Proximal Development: A Spatiotemporal Model. Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 47(6), 25-47. doi:10.2753/RPO1061-0405470602
  14. ^ a b Morgan, A. (2009, July 28). What is "Scaffolding" and the "ZPD"? Retrieved October 13, 2014.
  15. ^ a b Wass, R., & Golding, C. (2014). Sharpening a tool for teaching: the zone of proximal development. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(6), 671-684.
  16. ^ Balaban, Nancy. (1995). "Seeing the Child, Knowing the Person." In Ayers, W. To Become a Teacher. Teachers College Press. p. 52
  17. ^ Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic Inquiries in education: Building on the legacy of Vygotsky. Cambridge University Press. p. 57
  18. ^ Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001). Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 942-1012.
  19. ^ McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of proximal development. Retrieved from
  20. ^ Kuusisaari, H. (2014). Teachers at the zone of proximal development: Collaboration promoting or hindering the development process. Teaching and Teacher Education, 43, 46-57.
  • Chaiklin, S. (2003). "The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky's analysis of learning and instruction." In Kozulin, A., Gindis, B., Ageyev, V. & Miller, S. (Eds.) Vygotsky's educational theory and practice in cultural context. 39-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
  • Mayer, R. E. (2008). Learning and instruction. (2nd ed., pp. 462–463). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.