What Is the Zone of Proximal Development?

An Important Component of the Social Learning Process

Zone of Proximal Development
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The zone of proximal development is a concept created by seminal psychologist Lev Vygotsky. According to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development is:

"the distance between the actual development 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" (Vygotsky, 1978).

In other words, it is the range of abilities that a person can perform with assistance, but cannot yet perform independently.

The Importance of the More Knowledgeable Other

The concept of the more knowledgeable other is quite simple and fairly self-explanatory. This individual is someone who has a higher level of knowledge than the learner. It is the more knowledgeable other who provides the critical guidance and instruction during the sensitive learning period. While a child might not yet be capable of doing something on their own, they are able to perform the task with the assistance of a skilled instructor.

The Importance of Social Interaction

This more knowledgeable other is often a parent, teacher, or other adult, but this is not always the case. In many instances, peers provide valuable assistance and instruction. During certain periods of a child's life, they may even look to peers more than they do to adults.

The teen years, when forming an identity and fitting-in become so critical, are one just one example. Kids at this age often look to their peers for information about how to act and how to dress.

Vygotsky believed that peer interaction was an essential part of the learning process. In order for children to learn new skills, he suggested pairing more competent students with less skilled ones.

Scaffolding

When children are in this zone of proximal development, providing them with the appropriate assistance and tools, which he referred to as scaffolding, gives the student what they need to accomplish the new task or skill. Eventually, the scaffolding can be removed and the student will be able to complete the task independently.

Applications in the Classroom

It is important to realize that the zone of proximal development is a moving target. As a learner gains new skills and abilities, this zone moves progressively forward. Teachers and parents can take advantage of this by continually providing educational opportunities that are a slight stretch of a child's existing knowledge and skills. By giving children tasks that they cannot quite do easily on their own and providing the guidance they need to accomplish it, educators can progressively advance the learning process.

For example, a teacher in an experimental psychology course might initially provide scaffolding for students by coaching them step-by-step through their experiments.

Next, teacher might slowly remove the scaffolding by only providing outlines or brief descriptions of how to proceed. Finally, students would be expected to develop and carry out their experiments independently.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

References

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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