Zone of proximal development – the point of difficulty (with a topic, concept, problem or process) at which students can complete a task provided they are supported by a more knowledgeable other (MKO).
The zone of proximal development (ZPD) was developed by the now famous psychologist Lev Vygotsky around 100 years ago.i It is well known, generally accepted and used by educators worldwide. The zone of proximal development refers to the level of difficulty in a given learning task (that is neither too hard nor too difficult) when adequate support is provided by a teacher.
The zone of proximal development refers to the level of difficulty in a given learning task (that is neither too hard nor too difficult) when adequate support is provided by a teacher.
Vygotsky refers to those who provide support as the ‘more knowledgeable other’ (MKO). If a task is difficult, students become bystanders. If a task is too easy, students are wasting valuable learning time. The sweet spot for learning is somewhere in between and is known as the ‘zone of proximal development’. You can also think of the ZPD as ‘the point of optimal learning when support is provided’. To employ the ZPD concept, teachers need to first divide a learning activity into 3 levels of difficulty:
The ZPD refers to the second level. This is the optimal point for learning to occur – students are challenged to acquire new knowledge and skills at the very edge of their abilities. The concept suggests that teachers should try to keep students in this zone for as long as possible (with the exception of activities such as revision, consolidation and deliberate practice). This is the ideal level that maximises the acquisition of both skill and knowledge.
Hint: as the name suggests, the point of optimal learning (with support) is not a specific or exact point, but a zone or range. In other words, level 2 could be divided into several sub-levels such as L2.1 – L2.5. Activities can be directed at any of those sub-levels. At L2.1, teachers could provide some support. At L2.5, teachers are likely to need to provide extensive one-on-one support.
When students work at the ‘too easy’ level, they learn very little. This is because they are not being exposed to new knowledge, skills, processes, concepts or ideas beyond their existing abilities. At this level, students simply practise what they already know and what they can already do. This may be desirable in some instances (such as for consolidation, revision, practice or leisure purposes). However, learning becomes boring, repetitive and monotonous if the tasks are too easy. At the ‘too difficult’ level, students also learn very little. When content is too difficult, students are overwhelmed – content is inaccessible – they are often unable to even begin. Students may disengage at this point and embark on task-avoidance behaviours.
Hint: the zone of proximal development is closely related to scaffolding which is when an MKO gradually reduces support as the student becomes more proficient. The ZPD helps teachers to determine where scaffolding begins and ends.
As a student progresses in their learning, their ZPD is moved so that learning is always optimised.
The zone of proximal development is the point at which support from a teacher, parent, coach, trainer or more experienced peer is needed. However, there is a sweet spot somewhere between the ‘too easy’ level and the ZPD. This spot is where students can learn independently if they have sufficient study and metacognitive skills, as well as a reasonable level of motivation. Teachers can use this sweet spot for homework activities, assignments, investigations, discovery and problem-based learning, anchor activities and any type of cooperative learning. These activities are student-centred and therefore very little teacher support is provided. Learning is likely to be slower however, as teacher support is reduced substantially.
Hint: the quality of instruction affects the point at which the zone of proximal development ends and learning becomes too hard. High-performing teachers use a range of strategies such as questioning, feedback, formative assessment, scaffolding, chunking and guided/shared learning to support students in more difficult tasks. Poor instructional strategies can result in the student falling out of the ZPD (as content is now too hard for learning to occur due to poor teaching practices).
In one sense, the ZPD is a planning and monitoring tool. When developing activities, lessons and units of work, teachers should accurately pinpoint the most effective level of difficulty in order to maximise learning. In addition, the ZPD can be applied to a cohort, class, group or individual student. When applied to individual students, the ZPD is topic-dependent – for example, a student may excel in maths but be average in language studies, so they have different ZPDs for each subject. As a student progresses in their learning, their ZPD is moved so that learning is always optimised. As the ZPD can be applied to individual students and is regularly adjusted, it is a prominent feature in the differentiated classroom.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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