What is the zone of proximal development?

Before you teach a child something new, you first should assess what he or she already knows. See more parenting pictures.
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You're trying to teach a child how to subtract. He or she has already learned how to add, so you introduce subtraction by building on that skill set. At first, you guide the child through the steps of subtraction. Once the child masters these steps, he or she can work on subtraction independently. You might not realize it, but you've just used the concept of the zone of proximal development.

Although the name of this concept might sound complicated, it's the basis for many kinds of collaborative learning. Basically, the zone of proximal development is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with guidance and educational support. In other words, it's the gap between the actual level of development and the level of potential development. The zone of proximal development suggests that using standardized tests to measure intelligence is not the most effective way to calculate the potential for achievement.



Late 19th and early 20th century psychologist and social cognitive specialist Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of the zone of proximal development while researching childhood brain functions like attention span, memory and perception. He theorized that each of these functions is unique to the learner. And he suggested that rather than testing what a child already knows, the potential for development might be better measured by comparing a learner's ability to solve problems independently with his or her ability to solve problems with the help of someone who has mastered the ideas being learned.

He believed that a child follows an adult's example and gradually learns to complete tasks without any assistance. The more skilled the teachers, parents or peers communicating with the child are, the better the child will understand the concept. The teacher does more than teach a child how to perform a task; the instructor engages with the child to show him or her how to refine his or her approach to thinking about a task or concept. Basically, the way a child interacts socially is a good means to measure his or her potential for cognitive growth. On the next page, we'll find out how to locate a child's zone of proximal development.


Where is a child's zone of proximal development?

The concept of the zone of proximal development can be a useful and effective tool to teach and learn in a collaborative way. But before you can teach a learner through this method, you first need to locate his or her zone of proximal development.

In order to figure out where a child is within the zone of proximal development, teachers and parents ask questions and observe a child's unique learning style. You can then track the child's current learning needs and the shifts in these needs as the child develops. By doing so, you can chart what the child has already learned and take into account what the child will master in the future.



When you watch a child play and interact with others, you can see his or her specific methods of communication. Watch for how a child expresses him or herself and how he or she explains concepts to others. You can then categorize the skills the child:

  • Cannot yet do
  • Can do with help
  • Can do alone

Once you've found out this information, you can then identify the learner's stage of proximal development. There are four basic stages in the zone of proximal development. In stage one, a child is aided by others like teachers, parents or peers on how to complete a task or understand a concept. In stage two, a child provides assistance to himself or herself. In stage three, a child internalizes the method by which to complete a task or understand a concept. In stage four, a child goes through a process of deautomization; that is, the child goes back through the prior stages to learn a new task or concept.

After you've identified a child's zone of proximal development, you can then apply this knowledge when instructing the student to learn new ideas or tasks. On the next page, we'll take a look at how teachers can apply the zone of proximal development in the classroom.

Applying the Zone of Proximal Development in the Classroom

To apply the concept of the zone of proximal development, teachers instruct in small steps according to the tasks a child is already able to do independently. This strategy is referred to as scaffolding. The teacher should also support and assist the child until he or she can complete all of the steps independently.

Before teachers can begin guiding students through the steps necessary to learn a concept, they should get a grasp of how these tasks, referred to as scaffolds, are applicable to everyday life. The teacher then builds on these scaffolds to develop the child's zone of proximal development. To most effectively teach by using the zone of proximal development, teachers should stress the connections between the learner's prior knowledge of a task in everyday contexts with the new task or concept being learned. For example, let's say a teacher is instructing students about the water cycle. If a teacher has already taught a lesson on the concept of evaporation, the teacher should use this prior knowledge of evaporation when introducing information about condensation. The child will then be able to make connections between the different phases of the water cycle.



Connections between the task being learned and how it's applicable to the skills needed in everyday life might not become apparent immediately; in fact, they might take several lessons to develop. Through further reading and coursework, children continue to make associations between ideas and everyday experience. For example, a learner might not immediately grasp how learning addition might apply to his or her everyday life. However, when asked to add the number of apples in one group to the number of oranges in another group, the student might then be able to make the connection between the theory of addition and counting everyday objects. In some cases, the teacher might not be the most effective person to convey a concept. Group work and collaborative projects with peers who have mastered a task or concept might prove effective as well.

Here's a look at the step-by-step process by which a teacher can apply the zone of proximal development:

  • First, a teacher should identify what a student already knows. By identifying this prior knowledge, the teacher can build on that skill set when introducing new concepts.
  • Next, the teacher can build on this knowledge through scaffolding; the scaffold will help students move from what they already know to what they should know by the end of class. When planning lessons, teachers should keep in mind the scaffolding process by integrating guided practice in their lesson plans.
  • Last, teachers can help students connect their new learning to their prior knowledge. For example, if a math teacher has just taught children how to master dividing decimals, the teacher might then relate this concept back to multiplying decimals.
  • All in all, through applying the concept of the zone of proximal development, the teacher identifies what a child already knows, teaches him or her something new to add to it, and then relates this back to his or her prior knowledge so that he or she can now understand the new concept with assistance.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "Constructivist Theory." Learning and Teaching.http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/constructivism.htm
  • "Four Stage Model of ZPD." North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/learning/lr1zpd.htm
  • "Social Development Theory: Vygotsky." The Theory into Practice Database. http://tip.psychology.org/vygotsky.html
  • "Zone of Proximal Development." North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/learning/lr1zpda.htm
  • "Zone of Proximal Development." Learn NC. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/5075