How to Use the Zone of Proximal Development Theory in Education

How to Use the Zone of Proximal Development Theory in Education

If educators know one thing for sure, it is that children learn at different rates. In fact, Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist, famous for his taxonomy of objectives, stated that the majority of kids can learn what is taught – it is not so much a matter of whether they can master a skill or content, it is a matter of how long it takes. And this sentiment was further explored in the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ theory, formulated by Lev Vygotsky,

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Vygotsky coined this term as a part of his ongoing cultural and biosocial development studies. According to him, the ZPD is this:

“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.”

In simpler and more complete terms, there is a zone of no understanding, when skills and concepts are first introduced. For example, someone just beginning to learn how to code with no prior knowledge, is in an outer zone, comprising things he cannot do. As instruction occurs, the person begins to develop some understanding but is not yet able to do what is taught on her own. She needs continued support from someone else, either a teacher or a peer who has already mastered a concept or skill. Finally, she can perform independently of any assistance – what we call full mastery.

The “zone of proximal development” is that phase where performance can occur so long as there is continued help. As a visual, this educational theory can be depicted as the following:


Source: Wikipedia

The “proximal” element refers to what the learner can perform only with continued help and guidance. She cannot yet perform on his own. But she is getting there – she just needs more support, guidance, and practice right now.

The Key Premises of Vygotsky’s Theory

According to Vygotsky’s initial theory of the learning process, two key elements must exist:

There must be “knowledgeable other.” This is an individual who already has mastery of the skill or concept that is to be learned. For instance, every new employee usually does not know all the ropes of a new job. His employer will see that he gets the required training, from a mentor or a senior colleague – ‘the knowledgeable other’. This individual will  teach him, coach him, assess his mastery, and re-teach what has not yet been mastered until the trainee can perform tasks independently.

There must be social interaction so that a learner can listen, observe, and practice with the more knowledgeable other assistance. This, according to Vygotsky, is a social situation, because it involves interaction between two people. In a typical and traditional educational setting, the “other” is usually a teacher; a parent or other adult can also be that “other;” and a peer may also be that “other.” In fact, Vygotsky recommended that a more knowledgeable peer be used when possible, and there are lots of reasons for this:

  • A peer is closer in age and has more in common with the learner.
  • A peer often sets up a less threatening environment for the learner.
  • Learners are often more willing to listen and take help from a peer than an adult. This is often true during adolescence.

While Vygotsky did not speak to it specifically, researchers who have built on his and others’ theories also added another critical piece called “scaffolding.” Think of it this way. Scaffolding is a temporary structure used to support something that’s being created. In ZPD theory, scaffolding stands for the tools, people and resources, and activities that take place in the zone of proximal development. Scaffolding comprises all the key elements that help the learner get to the final place – mastery. Once a person develops the mastery, you can remove the scaffolding.

Strategies and Examples of ZPD in the Classroom

As stated above, educators know that children learn at different rates. If conditions are right, the vast majority can master what it is we have to teach them, given the right amount of time.

We have to engage them, keep them interested and motivated, and provide praise and reward when mastery is accomplished. Elementary school children, for example, are often awarded certificates of accomplishment which they proudly take home and display. Grades are another form of reward for a student who is highly motivated academically.

When students struggle to master concepts and skills, they often feel to be “left behind.” After all, teachers feel the need to cover the standard curriculum by the end of the year, prep everyone form standardized tests, so they must “move on.”

Fortunately, we are moving beyond this antiquated system that only rewards those who can keep or exceed the pace with which the teacher is moving. It’s often called individualized instruction – a practice that allows proficient learners to move forward but provides the additional scaffolding that struggling learners need because their pace is slower.

Meeting the needs of struggling students, while others are moving in is a tough challenge for teachers, for it means that the traditional classroom is not the right environment. But some strategies can be put into place that will allow students to move from the ZPD to mastery.

1. Ongoing Informal Assessment During the Teaching of any Concept or Skill

As practice occurs in the classroom the observant teacher will be able to assess who is “getting it” and who is not. This is critical information because you’ll need to identify those who are struggling and think of ways for providing them with additional instructions and engagement.

Teachers can provide enrichment activities for those students who have demonstrated mastery and who can now perform independently. This will take them beyond the required mastery, satisfying their need to continue to be challenged. Then, the teacher can spend time working with those who continue to need assistance, moving them from the ZDP into mastery.

2. The Use of Peer Tutors

This can be an enrichment activity for those who have already demonstrated mastery.  In assisting those students who are still in the ZDP, these students are developing additional skills themselves – communication, sense of accomplishment when they teach successfully, experience in being of help to others and the good feelings that result, to name a few. This is a great way to infuse more experiential learning in the classroom.

One variation of peer tutoring is combining learning stations with it. As students move through learning stations, some will move through at a good pace, while others will move more slowly. Direct students who completed all of the stations, back to their peers who appear to be struggling. They can then assist them with additional ‘scaffolding’.

3. The Use of Older Tutors

Many school districts require service-learning projects as a part of the required high school curricula. Elementary and middle school teachers can tap into this great resource by requesting student tutors for their classrooms. Younger students often look up to the older kids as role models. That’s why they are more willing to take additional help from them, when they might shun help from an adult.

4. Using Pairs in the Classroom

This is a variation of peer tutoring. By pairing a capable student with a struggling one while practice sessions occur, the capable student can bring the struggler along.

Suppose a student is struggling with negative and positive integers. Obviously, if she doesn’t get the concept, she will never be able to understand the algorithmic processes of working with them. The teacher has paired an able student with her but also knows that she is a tactile-kinesthetic learner. So she provides the student with manipulatives to use for understanding the concept. These would act as additional ‘scaffolding’ for learning.


The Zone of Proximal Development is a key concept in the education of any type. By understanding better where your student is at their journey, you can determine the right tools and techniques (scaffolding)  that will help them succeed.  And the social aspect is another critical  part of this theory. When there is a “knowledgeable other” to assist, the chances of success are much greater.

Photo by NeONBRAND

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