Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development refers to areas of learning that are too difficult for an individual to achieve alone, but are achievable with the help of an expert, parent or peer.

The concept was first proposed by Soviet psychologist and social constructivist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). Vygotsky (pronounced Vai/got/ski) conceived of three basic levels of learning and achievement:

(1) a person’s current level of learning and skill (the zone of actual development);
(2) areas of learning and skill that have not yet been mastered (the zone of potential development); and,
(3) potential learning that could be achieved with the help guidance and encouragement from others (the zone of proximal development).

Zone of Proximal Development_Edudaria_c2018

As Vygotsky explains:

“The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the ‘buds’ or ‘flowers’ of development rather than the ‘fruits’ of development.” (1997, p. 33)

For Vygotsky, the proximal was about potential gains made by learners and teachers working collaboratively:

“The zone of proximal development [...] is 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” (p. 33)

The concept is useful when considering:

  1. What understanding can students demonstrate already?
  2. What is beyond their reach at this stage?
  3. What steps would they need to take to reach a higher level of competency?
  4. What resources or activities could be mobilised to guide them?

The zone of proximal development is often associated with ‘scaffolding’ in education, although Vygotsky himself never used the term.

Further Reading

Vygotsky Lev S, 1997, ‘Interaction between learning and development’ in Gauvain, Mary, and Michael Cole. Readings on the development of children. New York: WH.