What is the zone of proximal development?

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.

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  • "Zone of Proximal Development." North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/learning/lr1zpda.htm
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