The zone of proximal development (ZPD) refers to what an individual can do with the help of an expert. They cannot accomplish that task completely on their own, but they are close.
The term “proximal” means “close to”. The student still needs guidance and instruction from someone with more experience. Once they can perform that task without any help at all, they are ready to attempt something more challenging.
We all go through a learning process that involves a ZPD. Any sport or professional skill that takes time to master is the result of a gradual learning curve of failures and eventual success.
Definition of Zone of Proximal Development
In the early 20th century, a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky stated that 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” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).
Parents, teachers, and mentors are all examples of people that can provide guidance, referred to as “more knowledgeable others”, or MKOs.
There are actually three zones: the zone where a task can be performed completely independently, the zone where the task cannot be performed at all, and the ZPD in between where the task can only be performed with the guidance of an MKO.
Examples of Zone of Proximal Development
1. Graduating to a Higher Grade at School
Vygotsky’s ZPD has been applied to educational settings more so than in any other domain. The teacher’s job is to identify each student’s level of ability, and then help them improve gradually, step by step, until they can master the task independently.
Of course, the learning doesn’t stop there. The entire educational system is a continuous application of ZPD, up until high school graduation day. But wait, there’s more. After secondary school, the educational continuum extends to the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.
It is at the last level, the doctorate, that students are finally able to stop being the student, and become the master. Doctoral students will graduate no longer needing the assistance of their mentor or research advisor to produce their own scientific contributions. At least, in theory, that’s the way it is supposed to work.
2. Levelling up in a Video Game
Good video games rely on the ZPD to train players. The first few levels are often easy and even provide simple instructions on how to use the controls. The enemies are easy to defeat and you get a lot of chances to make mistakes.
But as you move up levels, there are often less instructions provided by the computer and the enemies get a little harder each time.
The game might provide different forms of scaffolding and guidance as you progress, such as suggesting tools to use out of your backpack or giving in-game narration. But as you level up, the guidance will change because the game expects you to know the basics and wants to teach you more and more.
This ‘leveling up’ mentality is also evident in game-based learning and gamification in the classroom where educational games teach concepts like math puzzles and adjust the level of difficulty so it’s just difficult enough for a learner’s ability level.
3. Learning to Read
When we learn to read, our teachers will often provide us with books that introduce a few new words or grammatical challenges each week.
The week may start with direct instruction on the vocabulary or grammar, followed by group reading. When reading in groups, teachers can sit by the students and help them overcome hurdles they face in their learning.
As students get more confident, the teacher may allow them to read independently through a process called gradual release of responsibility.
But the next week, new and more difficult books will not only use the grammar and vocabulary learned the previous week – they will introduce new concepts as well!
The teacher will start all over again in the new and more difficult Zone of Proximal Development, scaffolding the students through the new tasks just like they did the previous week.
4. Learning Division
Division activities also often start with a ZPD task. The teacher assesses students’ ability levels then creates lessons that are challenging, will require support but are also doable.
For example, if a student doesn’t yet understand division, the teacher might start by giving students a group of 12 marbles and asking them to separate them into three equal groups.
Once the students understand the concept of separating marbles into separate groups, language may be introduced like “divide into three groups”. Next, the students will be asked to do it in their heads!
As students progress through the tasks and demonstrate the ability to do the tasks independently, the teacher may add more marbles to do higher-level division, or introduce more advanced methods of dividing large numbers using pen and paper.
5. Piano Skill Development
When students learn piano, they move through ‘grades’. For example, you might be a ‘grade 5 piano player’.
In each grade, students need to be able to demonstrate independent ability to play more and more difficult types of songs.
The grading system is very useful for piano teachers to determine a student’s ZPD. If a teacher gets a new student, they can ask which grade the student has achieved, and instantly, the teacher will get a grasp of what the student knows and what they will need to learn.
Following this formative assessment, the piano teacher can then move on to teaching hand positioning or chords that can help the student move through their zone of proximal development and demonstrate ability independently, until they can sit their next piano exam and move on to the next grade.
6. Learning The Tennis Serve
When teaching tennis serves, coaches often step up the level of difficulty by starting out serving underhand, then teaching the toss, and then the volley. They only move to the next step once the previous step has been mastered.
Tennis is a relatively simple sport, except for the serve. A lot of beginners can learn the forehand and backhand strokes fairly easily. As long as the positioning of the feet are correct, and the stoke is started early enough, making contact with the ball at its highest point is straightforward.
However, being able to serve the ball is a whole other story. The toss has to be perfect; the timing of the hit exact; the spring from the feet well-coordinated and balanced.
It takes a lot of practice, but also the instruction of a skilled coach. Training will be incremental, perhaps staring with just learning how to toss the ball in a trajectory that is straight up and straight down. Once that maneuver is mastered, the next step is hitting the ball at its apex, followed by placement over the net and inbounds.
Each step represents a specific ZPD.
7. Nurse Training and the Shot
One of the most fundamental skills a nurse must master is giving a shot. It looks like a simple procedure, but it is most definitely not. There are several steps involved in nurse training before actually placing the needle in a patient.
Many programs will have nurses practice with oranges in the beginning. Of course, the trainer will provide detailed instructions verbally, and then walk around the room as students practice. The trainer will often gently hold the hand of the student to allow them to “feel” the appropriate level of force needed. As the student makes progress, the instructor provides less support.
Eventually, every student will be able to administer an injection smoothly and correctly, and hopefully painlessly.
Training to become a nurse is no easy endeavor. It takes years and most programs are quite rigorous and demanding. That makes perfect sense; the stakes are high and the work environment can be very stressful.
8. Following Blueprints for Construction
If someone were to place a set of blueprints on the table before you, it would just look like a mass of horizontal and vertical lines. It’s hard to imagine that someone could build a house from all of that. Blueprints provide instructions to scaffold learning.
But of course, learning how to read blueprints is a process. First, an aspiring architect must learn how to read floor plans, elevations, and details of a project management schedule. After those steps are mastered, they are ready to learn about structural drawings and the plans for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing components.
Each step takes time to master. That is how ZPD works. There is no way one could just be shown a set of blueprints and be able to start building. The training takes years of instruction from experienced professionals.
9. Learning to use Software (e.g. Photoshop)
Computer software can be very complex. To learn to use it, teachers often start with modelling the basic features then only move on to the next ones once we have mastered the basics.
People can do amazing things with Photoshop. The program has many features that can produce incredible results.
Unfortunately, the icons that represent different functions can sometimes look like hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. Although it is possible to learn through trial and error, that takes time and can be very frustrating.
The best approach is to take a class. The instructor will start by introducing basic functions. Most likely, the steps will be demonstrated on a large screen at the front of the classroom that displays the instructor’s screen. This way students can follow along on their own computers.
Occasionally a student might get stuck. So, the instructor will walk over to their station and simply point out what to do. That is ZPD in action. The task was too difficult for the student to accomplish on their own, but with some guidance from the instructor, they can learn how.
10. Learning to Parallel Park
If we were to rank the different maneuvers in driving in terms of difficulty, parallel parking would be right at the top. It is most definitely not the first milestone to attempt when learning how to drive. This is why the driving coach teaches other fundamental skills first.
We start with basics, such as turning the ignition key and learning which pedal is the brake and which one is the gas. As we progress up the ladder of difficulty our driving instructor will be sure to give us the necessary instructions and guidance to accomplish each feat.
As one step is accomplished, we can move on to the next. This is a perfect example of how the ZPD is a very useful concept in any learning process; accomplishing one step at a time with the guidance of an expert. Of course, one day we won’t need to learn how to parallel park because cars will drive themselves.
11. Mastering Carpentry
Learning the art of carpentry can result in making beautiful items such as furniture, or even amazing things like a car. Your carpentry teacher will likely start you out with a birdhouse then scaffold your learning up to more complex jobs!
However, before starting up the table saw it might be a good idea to gain experience with basic tools, like the hammer and nail. Taking a class in shop would be wise as well. That way an experienced carpenter can show you the ropes and keep you from accidentally severing a finger, or two.
After mastering something simple like a birdhouse, you can choose something next that is more complex, such as desk or chest of drawers.
There will be mistakes along the way, but with time, experience, and guidance from an MKO, eventually a person will work their way up to making progressively more complex objects.
12. Coaching Athletes
Athletic coaches are masters of the ZPD. No matter the sport, a coach has to be highly skilled at examining each athlete’s level of skill and understanding exactly what they can and cannot accomplish. With a lot of experience, this becomes instinctual.
A good coach then knows the exact amount of guidance and instruction the athlete needs to make progress and move on to the next step. The athlete may need verbal instruction, a demonstration of the necessary movements, or the repetition of drills.
This is a process of continuous ZPD progression that all professional athletes must endure for years and years.
13. Machine Deep Learning Progression
Deep learning is a term used in AI that refers to how computers learn. In the early days, computer programs required data to be categorized and input by humans. As computers got more intelligent, developers had to provide less guidance.
As programs have become more advanced, computers have been able to learn independently by using algorithms. The algorithms collect data on their own and process the information automatically; requiring significantly less human involvement.
In a sense, deep learning is an example of ZPD that is an automated, independent process where the expert guidance comes from within. The program itself determines the proximal zone. Once a certain level of processing is mastered, it moves on to the next level of difficulty.
14. Learning to Walk
If ever there were ever an example of a lifelong ZPD, it would be parenting. In the early years, parents guide their children through many milestones of human development. Some of the most exciting include a toddler taking their first steps on their own, being able to dress themselves, or tying their shoes.
Each of these seem like simple tasks, but they each require the guidance and instruction of a caregiver. That involves carefully assessing the child’s current ability and then helping them master that skill. Parents will sometimes physically help the child engage in the specific movements needed by moving their hands the right way, or provide verbal instructions on what to do.
After those early years have passed however, the child will need guidance for many more years to come. As many have said before, “a mother’s job is never done.”
15. Learning to Renovate a House
A quick scan of shows on various cable T.V. channels will reveal a plethora of home renovation programs. Each television program scaffolds learning to move you through the ZPD of learning to renovate.
HGDTV, TLC, BBC Lifestyle, just to name a few, all have multiple shows about taking a dilapidated property and turning into a stunning structure that is a true marvel of design.
Of course, the shows we see today are hosted by the best of the best. The people coordinating those renovations have tons of experience. But they didn’t start that way. Most likely each and every one of them started small; maybe just redoing a kitchen or a couple of bathrooms.
Over time, as they learn the tricks of the trade, they are able to tackle larger and more involved projects. In this example, the MKO for the ZPD is simply personal experience.
Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is a fundamental concept from the sociocultural theory of education. It has become one of the most useful frameworks in education ever created. It has provided tremendously beneficial insight into the learning process. Teachers all over the world utilize ZPD every day, on a minute-by-minute, even a second-by-second basis.
The ZPD is also used in many other domains of life. Experienced coaches have an instinctual understanding of each athlete’s ZPD and know exactly what they need to advance. Parents assess the ZPD of their child for decades. Even AI utilizes a self-activated ZPD in deep learning algorithms that allow computers to function without human interference.
It is truly amazing how one insight, from one person, can have so many applications a hundred years later.
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