The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was originally developed by famous psychologist Lev Vygotsky to describe what a person can do with the scaffolding of a more advanced instructor.
Think about when you learned to tie your shoes. The first lesson you were given came from the people around you who modeled shoe tying for you. Eventually, your parent may have bought you a pair of laced tennis shoes and shown you the steps to shoe-tying. Perhaps your parent did some of the steps for you, and allowed you to practice. Over time, your parent slowly gave you control over the process till you could do it on your own. This progression is called scaffolding. Your parent (and others around you) provided the structure you needed to build skills you would’ve never been able to gain on your own.
With the scaffolding of an expert (maybe a person or maybe a recipe book), we learn to do what we could not do before. Keep in mind the picture above. Everyone has a current learning base where they are comfortable. Think again about the tying-your-shoes example. There are plenty of skills you had to incorporate into your learning base before you reached that point. On the other hand, there are skills that are still too advanced for us. Somewhere in between (and just outside our comfort zone) is our ZPD where growth can occur.
How does this apply to teaching?
Note the picture on below. Every student has a different ZPD on this graph in any given skill. If we take a student above their ZPD they will become frustrated and confused. In this case, the student is more than out of their comfort zone, they’re in outer space! No learning will occur.
It’s like pulling a cart with a rope so hard and so fast that the cart cracks and the rope breaks, leaving them far behind. The student will not benefit.
On the flip side, if we teach below a student’s current ZPD, boredom will ensue. The result is a student so comfortable that they become stagnant in their learning and begin to operate at less than their capabilities would allow.
Using the cart analogy, it would be like pulling the cart in slow circles or not pulling it at all. Again the student will not benefit.
Vygotsky’s theory reminds us that we must connect back to what a student already understands to extend student learning. This requires scaffolding experiences that keep students operating at their ZPD as much as possible.
- What is my student’s current learning base in this area? What do they already know? What do they need to know?
- Are my students bored, confused or frustrated? How does that indicate a need to scaffold learning better for my students?
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