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Zone of proximal development (ZPD)

Author: Janet Fletcher, Senior SACE Officer Curriculum and Assessment, SACE Board of SA
Published: June 2018
This is a ‘Terminology in brief’ article, delving into a term's background, meaning, and use in the educational space. Shorter definitions can be found in our wordlist.

What is this ZPD that everyone is talking about? Just more psychobabble? Absolutely not.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky was one of the founding fathers of modern psychological thinking and research in education.

His work focused around several radical concepts of learning and development:

  • There are highly complex dynamic relationships between developmental and learning processes.
  • Learning which is orientated towards development levels that have already been reached is ineffective from the viewpoint of the child's overall development.
  • Good learning is that which is in advance of development.
  • Learning must aim for the next developmental space, the zone of proximal development (ZPD).
  • In this zone, when supported by a 'more knowledgeable other' (MKO) 'learning awakens a variety of internal development processes.

So that's the child psychologist speak but what does this mean for the 21st century teacher?

The zone of proximal development is a metaphor. It is a way for us to think about how we push our students out of the zone they are comfortable in but not really learning anything, and into a zone that is beyond them.

To use another metaphor, it's getting the child who rides a three wheeler onto a two wheeler. They can't do it yet. It's ahead of their current development capability but if we put trainer wheels on the two wheeler or get out there with the child to hold the bike steady while they try and ride (and pick them up after they fall and set them back up again), they will learn to ride a two wheeler. Then we take the trainer wheels off and we step back.

Students working in the ZPD significantly increase their development. But they can't be there alone. They can work in that space because of the presence of the MKO. That can be:

  • the teacher
  • a parent/coach
  • a peer
  • scaffolding and other learning resources.

If we set the learning task too far past the student and do not support them, they enter the panic zone and they cannot engage with the learning. That's the child that just looks at their three wheeler, then at the two wheeler and says, "no, I can't do that now." And they're right. They can't – alone.

So the ZPD is a supported zone where we move students from where they are comfortable but not increasing their development, to the space where it's a bit beyond them but with guidance, they can be challenged into development.

References

Vygotsky, L 1978, 'Interaction between learning and development', in Mind and Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 79-91. Reprinted in Readings on the Development of Children, second edition, 1997 WH Freeman and Company.