The zone of proximal development, is a leading theory in educational psychology. The zone of proximal development represents the gap between how a learner can perform without guidance, and what they can do with guidance. This gap presents an area where learners can learn with the most efficiency, with the guidance of someone more knowledgeable than themselves (More Knowledgeable Other).
The concept of the zone of proximal development was introduced by Soviet Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) during the last few years of his life (1931-1934). Vygotsky believed that when a child gets involved in dialogue with “the more knowledgeable other,” such as a teacher or a parent, the child will develop different abilities to solve problems on their own and perform different tasks without help.
In this article, we will explore the zone of proximal development, an example of the zone of proximal development, how to utilize it, challenges of the zone of proximal development and cover the synonymous Theory of Scaffolding. This guide should provide you with a better understanding of the zone of proximal development and how you can utilize this knowledge.
What is the Zone of Proximal Development?
Lev Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as this:
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 peersLev Vygotsky
The zone of proximal development is a phrase that represents the gap between what a learner can perform with assistance (encouragement and guidance) and what the individual can perform without assistance (alone).
The word, “proximal” represents the skills that the learner is “near” to mastering. The “zone” is where instructional efforts are the most fruitful, which is where the task is just out of reach of the individual’s present capabilities.
Vygotsky suggested that in order to learn, we must be presented with tasks that slightly out of reach without the help of someone else, or the “more knowledgeable other.” Vygotsky also argued that challenging tasks promote cognitive development in the highest degree.
Example of the Zone of Proximal Development
Cowboy Troy decides to learn how to shoe horses so he can support his newfound hobby of bronco riding. He decides to move north to train under his friend, Veronica, who has 12 years of experience in ferrying horses.
In order to master ferrying, Cowboy Troy must learn how to shape a horse shoe into the perfect fit. Veronica notices that Cowboy Troy very frustrated because he cannot hammer the horseshoes into the proper fitting shape. Veronica examines his hammering technique. She notices his angles are correct, he hits the shoe at the right speed and ultimately, he is doing everything correct regarding the hammering.
However, Veronica notices that Cowboy Troy’s horse shoes are always slightly too narrow for a proper fit. Veronica identifies that Cowboy Troy is not taking correct hoof measurements because forgot to clean the horse’s foot first. Veronica then demonstrates how to clean a hoof properly, and take the exact measurement by measuring certain angles on the hoof. Cowboy Troy then learns how to take proper measurements, and is then able to make perfectly fitting shoes.
In this example, Cowboy Troy was in the zone of proximal development for learning how to shoe horses independently. Cowboy Troy was doing everything correctly, but just needed the help of a “more knowledgeable other” to succeed in mastering ferrying. When Veronica gave Cowboy Troy assistance, he was able to achieve his goal.
How to utilize the Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky believed that when a learner is within the zone of proximal development for a certain task, the appropriate application of guidance will give the learner just enough “boost” to complete the task. These “boosts” are just what is needed for a learner to fully understand and then be able to independently utilize their newly learned skill.
Definition of More Knowledgeable Other (MKO): The “More Knowledgeable Other,” is a phrase that Vygotsky used to identify the person in an educational relationship that possesses a higher ability (skills, knowledge, experience) than the learner, with respect to the task or concept that is being taught. The more knowledgeable other can be in the form of a parent, pier, manager, sibling, etc..
In order to assist a person with the zone of proximal development, the more knowledgeable other would be encouraged to focus on three components that promote the learning process:
- The presence of someone with skills, knowledge, and experience beyond that of the learner.
- Social interactions with the more knowledgeable other that allow the learner to observe and practice the targeted skill.
- Implementation of “Scaffolding,” or knowledge teaching activities provided by the more knowledgeable other, to a learner as they are led through the Zone of Proximal Development.
Although teaching different tasks require different approaches and methods of instruction, the zone of proximal development’s basic idea is this: the more knowledgeable other should assign tasks that the learner cannot do on their own, but they can do with minor assistance and encouragement. The more knowledgeable other should provide just enough assistance so that the learner can learn how to complete the task independently.
Challenges of the Zone of Proximal Development
A major challenge for the more knowledgeable other is identifying the sweet spot with the zone of proximal development. This can become even more of a challenge when the more knowledgeable other is instructing multiple learners, as each learner may have a different optimal zone. In collaborative learning environments where there are multiple learners, Vygotsky would suggest to let the learners teach each other, as some may be more developed than others, and can help other learners complete tasks.
Other challenges of the zone of proximal development include: not having enough time or resources to understand the learner’s present skill-set/knowledge, attempting to teach too many individuals at once, not being organize or capable enough to continuously identify the zone of proximal development.
Stages of the Zone of Proximal Development
There are three categories where the learner may reside in terms of their present skill-set. For optimal learning to take place, it is necessary that the more knowledgeable other identifies the learner’s specific stage of zone of proximal development.
- Zone of Proximal Development & Scaffolding: Unlock the Super-Power of Teaching
Tasks that are beyond a learner’s zone of proximal development are those that are not possible of being completed even with the help of a more knowledgeable other.
If the task isn’t within the learner’s zone of proximal development, the more knowledgeable other should decrease the complexity of the task, and find the sweet spot where the learner can barely complete it without assistance.
- Tasks a Learner Is Able to Accomplish With Assistance
When a learner is nearing the mastery of a certain task, but still needs assistance from a more knowledgeable other, Vygotsky would suggest that they are in the zone of proximal development, or the ideal area to maximize learning efficiency.
In this stage, the more knowledgeable other can use different techniques to help the learner better comprehend the concepts and skills to perform a task independently. From this point, the learning can continue on into more advanced topics.
- Tasks a Learner Is Able Accomplish Without Assistance
In this stage, it is possible for the learner to complete tasks independently, and is said to have mastered the skills required to do so. This learner does not require the assistance of a more knowledgeable other.
When a learner is within this stage, the more knowledgeable other needs to increase the task’s difficulty, and adjust to find the zone of proximal development.
What is the Theory of Scaffolding?
Scaffolding is the way the adult guides the child’s learning via focused questions and positive interactions.Nancy Balana, Seeing the Child, Knowing the Person.
The Theory of Scaffolding is an excellent pairing theory with the Vygostky’s zone of proximal development because the Theory of Scaffolding provides a framework in which the zone of proximal development can be implemented. Other frameworks include Reciprocal Teaching and Dynamic Assessment.
Although never mentioned by Lev Vygotsky, the Theory of Scaffolding is often regarded as being synonymous with the zone of proximal development. The Theory of Scaffolding was introduced by Jerome Bruner, who applied the zone of proximal development in various educational contexts.
Scaffolding is the process in which a more knowledgeable other, helps a student in their zone of proximal development and decreases/increases assistance as needed. The word “scaffolding” comes from the metaphor of workers removing scaffolding from a building as they complete tasks.
Methods of Scaffolding
Jerome Bruner’s team (Ann Brown and Mercedes Chavez Jaime) had identified in a study that the more knowledgeable other’s methods of teaching build down to three items:
- General Encouragement
General encouragement can come in the form of positive affirmations and praise. If a learner is in their zone of proximal development, they may feel inadequate and might require positive reinforcement to get over the next hump.
General encouragement can take many forms, however a basic example of this could be the simple saying of, “See? Easy peasy, now you give it a try.”
- Specific Instruction
When the more knowledgeable other is teaching the learner, they are required to provide specific instruction on how to complete a task. This will allow the learner to build a conceptual framework and basic understanding of how the task can be accomplished.
An example of specific instruction could be a detailed guide on how to complete an experiment in biology class.
- Direct Demonstration
This is the form of instruction that requires the more knowledgeable other to directly demonstrate how to complete the task. This would allow the learner to see that the task is possible, and a method exists to complete it.
For example, a parent may demonstrate how to drive a car before letting their child try. In doing this, they can provide a way for the learner to gather useful information to serve as a basis for understanding.
The Zone of Proximal Development is an idea that can be utilized by anyone who is seeking to teach someone else a task or concept. Lev Vygotsky introduced this concept in 1931, and it was later developed into further theories such as the Scaffolding Theory. With this knowledge, anyone can optimize their ability to teach others. The concept of the zone of proximal development has endless applications and can be utilized in smaller matters, from teaching someone to tie their shoes to university level education.
Balaban, Nancy. (1995). “Seeing the Child, Knowing the Person.” In Ayers, W. To Become a Teacher. Teachers College Press. p. 52
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
Cherry, K. (2021, September 11). How Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development. Verywell Mind. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-zone-of-proximal-development-2796034
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