The Zone of Proximal Development in Child Cognitive Theory

A student examining a molecule model.
A student examining a molecule model.. Hero Images/Getty Images

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist whose work was controversial in what was then the Soviet Union, came up with the concept of the zone of proximal development to describe an optimal learning environment. Think of it as something like a "Goldilocks Theory." Sometimes work is too easy. Sometimes work is too hard. And sometimes work is just right. When the work is just right, it creates an optimal learning environment.

When work is easy, learners can do the work on their own without any help. It is their "comfort zone." If all the work a learner is asked to do is always in the comfort zone, no learning will take place. In fact, a learner will eventually lose interest. When the work is too hard, on the other hand, the learner becomes frustrated. Even with help, learners in the "frustration zone" are likely to give up.

The area between the comfort zone and the frustration zone is the one where learning will take place. the ZPD theory suggests. It is the area where a learner will need some help or will need to work hard to understand the concept or complete the task at hand. This is the zone of proximal development. A learner is neither bored nor frustrated, but appropriately challenged.

Vygotsky also believed that even naturally curious children would not advance far without a structured learning environment.

He advocated for teachers to give students difficult material to learn, believing that a child's intelligence rested in his or her problem-solving abilities rather than the volume of what he or she knows. He believed that the ability to absorb new knowledge depended on the availability and quality of instruction a student received, as well as the student's previous learning.

Language and the ability to communicate were key components of the ZPD, since children develop cognitive skills from others through dialogue, the theory posits.

Vygotsky's work was little known outside the Soviet Union during his lifetime. His theories did not become well known in Western countries until the 1970s. His work is well-known among child development specialists, although not always met with agreement, and most have been refined since his original theses were written.

Those refinements include the concept of "scaffolding," which refers to changing how much support a child receives in a learning environment based on his or her own learning ability and potential. If a child is struggling with a specific concept or task over time, he or she receives more support. But as the child comes to understand a concept, the amount of guidance (or scaffolding, which is a temporary support of a structure in ​the process of being built), is adjusted appropriately. Even though it was an idea developed long after Vygotsky had died, scaffolding is seen as necessary to keep a child's progress moving forward in the ZPD.

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