K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development).

History of the concept

Originally developed by social cognitive theorist and psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the concept of the zone of proximal development opposes the use of standardized tests as a means to measure student intelligence.1 Vygotsky suggests that instead of assessing what a student knows to determine intelligence, it is more helpful to compare their ability to independently solve problems with their ability to solve problems with the assistance of someone who has mastered the concepts being learned. Vygotsky began this research because he wanted to understand how children’s functions (like attention, memory, and perception) develop and are individual to the learner.2 Vygotsky contends that children “develop deliberate control over everyday concepts through contact with scientific concepts.” Within the Vygotskian concept of zone of proximal development, social interaction is the basis for cognitive growth. Accordingly, the communication that transpires in a social setting with more knowledgeable or proficient people (parents, teachers, peers, others) assists children in building an understanding of the concept.3

American psychologist Jerome Bruner (1982) describes the zone of proximal development as “the child’s ability to recognize the value of hinges and props even before he is conscious of their full significance.”4

Zone of proximal development in the classroom

In a classroom setting, the teacher is responsible for structuring interactions and developing instruction in small steps based on tasks the learner is already capable of performing independently — an instructional strategy known as scaffolding. The instructor is also charged with providing support until the learner can move through all tasks independently.

In order for teachers to guide learners through the tasks associated with learning a concept, they must “understand how cognitive tasks fit into the child’s cultural activities.”5 These tasks are called “scaffolds,” which are tasks or levels on which the teacher builds to develop learners’ zones of proximal development. According to John Zeuli, “Instruction should emphasize connections to what the learner already knows in other familiar, everyday contexts.”6

Vygotsky (1962) suggests that these connections do not have to take place immediately, but that “in the course of further schoolwork and reading,” learners can make the association between concepts and experience.7 Vygotsky describes the teacher’s role as assisting students in the recognition of decontextualized, systematic concepts. Vygotsky contends, “instruction cannot be identified as development, but properly organized instruction will result in the child’s intellectual development, will bring into being an entire series of such developmental processes, which were not at all possible without instruction.”8 Accordingly, the teaching methodology that aligns with the zone of proximal development “integrates several approaches to form a comprehensive agenda for research of the genesis, development, function, and structure of the human psyche.”9

Within the classroom, the person who is more knowledgeable is not always the teacher; students can also be placed in collaborative groups with others who have demonstrated mastery of tasks and concepts.

Locating the zone of proximal development

Teachers, parents, and mentors attuned to a learner can recognize where he or she is within the zone of proximal development by asking questions and recognizing the learner’s individual learning style.10 Thus, the zone of proximal development enables educators and parents to define the learner’s immediate needs and the shifting developmental status, which allows for what has already been achieved developmentally, and for what the learner will be able to master in the future.11