Zone of proximal development

From Academic Kids

The zone of proximal development is the gap between a learner's current or actual level of development determined by independent problem solving and the learner's emerging or potential level of development. That is, it is the set of knowledge that the learner has the ability to learn currently but does not yet understand -- things that are "just out of reach".

This idea is very similar to Jim Cummins' idea of information plus one or i + 1. Learners cannot build new knowledge without first having a framework or prior learning foundation. Lev Vygotsky says that learners are generally not able to bridge a large gap of learning without some cognitively related prior knowledge, to connect to and support the new information.

The phenomena of an individual being able to perform at a higher level of competence with the assistance of more capable others is referred to in Vygotskian terms as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is arguably one of the better known theoretical constructs of Vygotskys work.

Palincsar (1998), a scholar who has done considerable work marrying the ZPD with the construct of scaffolding (see below) claimed recently that [the ZPD] is perhaps one of the most used and least understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literature (Palincsar, 1998, p. 370). Her main reasons for this claim are that people have misunderstood the original purpose of the ZPD and stripped it of its theoretical framework, using it as an explanatory tool rather than recognizing its descriptive power; and that people have taken too literally the idea of the more capable other in creating spaces for assisted performance, rather than looking at the range of possibilities for the various cultural artifacts (including elements of the task itself) that are present in the learning activity to mediate learning in the ZPD (Palincsar, 1998).

Chaiklin (2003) discusses the common interpretation of the ZPD (Chaiklin, 2003, p. 41) as comprising three assumptions generality assumption, whereby the ZPD is assumed to have universal applicability; assistance assumption similar to Palincsars argument that the ZPD has been realigned to assume that learning requires the interventions of an expert other; and potential assumption whereby the ZPD is seen to be some kind of natural property of the learner that allows for the best and least difficult learning. Chaiklin (2003) critiques the common interpretation on three grounds.

First, the ZPD must be related to overall development over time rather than the learning of any discrete skill; second, that it is accepted fact that a child can do more with direction from and collaboration with a more capable other. What many researchers avoid is understanding the meaning of the assistance provided in relation to the learning of skills and the learners overall development. Finally, the potential of a learner is not a property of a child (as in, she is in her zone of proximal development at this stage), but rather it is an indication of the presence of immature, or maturing, if you like, psychological functions which can be a springboard for meaningful interventions.

Chaiklin (2003) concludes his essay with several issues for future discussion (including the relations between the ZPD and scaffolding), and exhorts us to review the original theoretical construct in its cultural and historical contexts before moving it too far from Vygotskys original intentions.

(a) Vygotsky was trying to raise a set of issues that have not been confronted adequately in the contemporary literature that refers to this concept; (b) many of the resolutions or new developments that diverse authors have proposed seem to be a dilution of these general theoretical issues, rather than a clarification or deepening; and (c) many of the arguments, criticisms, and concerns that have been raised are explicitly wrong or not pointed toward Vygotskys theoretical perspective at all. Persons who want to use the zone of proximal development concept should, as a minimum, try to understand the particular theoretical and conceptual problems Vygotsky was trying to address when he formulated this concept. Chaiklin, 2003, p. 59.

See also


  • Kozulin, Gindis, Ageyev, Miller, (2003), Vygotskys Educational Theory in Cultural Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521528836.
  • Chaiklin, S., (2003) The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotskys Analysis of Learning and Instruction in Kozulin et. al, (2003)
  • Palincsar, A.S., (1999) Keeping the Metaphor of Scaffolding Fresh A Response to C. Addison Stones The Metaphor of Scaffolding: Its Utility for the Field of Learning Disabilities, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol. 31, No. 4, July/August, pp. 370-373



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