Zone of Proximal Development
The Basic Idea
Sarah is learning to play the guitar with a teacher. She has nearly mastered all of the basic chords but one, F, is eluding her. Her teacher demonstrates the chord, before helping Sarah to adjust her wrist and fingers into the correct position. Before long, she is able to play the chord as well as any other.
We have all experienced it: being close to completing a task or assignment, but only making a breakthrough with the assistance or guidance of someone else. In these cases, we are in our Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)¹. The concept was developed by Lev Vygotsky to describe the space between what we can do without assistance, and what we cannot do even with assistance. In the example above, playing the F chord is a task which falls within Sarah’s Zone of Proximal Development, whilst playing a single string (possible without assistance) or playing a complex jazz solo (impossible even with assistance) both fall outside of it. The word “proximal” refers to the fact that we are close to mastering the skill, but need a helping hand.¹
Learning in the ZPD occurs under the guidance of skilled instructors, teachers or more knowledgeable peers. These interactions allow learners to acquire skills which they are then able to complete independently. As learners develop new skills and knowledge, the tasks that fall within their ZPD will change. By keeping learners within their ZPD, Vygotsky argued, we can promote the best possible educational outcomes.
More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) – Someone who has a better understanding or higher ability level than the learner, in reference to the specific task, idea, or concept. The MKO can be a teacher, parent, peer or another adult. The MKO facilitates learning by providing demonstrations and guidance.
Scaffolding – This refers to the activities, tools and resources that aid an individual’s learning within their ZPD. These are provided by the instructor and will help the learner to accomplish new tasks or skills. Examples of scaffolding include visual aids, peer-to-peer group work and self-assessment materials. As with “real” scaffolding, the eventual goal is to remove the support and allow the individual to complete the task independently.²
Social Constructivism – The idea that individuals construct new knowledge and understandings from their experiences. Social and cultural contexts influence our experiences, beliefs and ideas, therefore influencing the knowledge that we construct. Social interactions are central to the construction process.³
The concept of the Zone of Proximal Development was first developed by Lev Vygotsky in the years before his death in 1934.⁴ The theory was based on Vygotsky’s observations that, whilst children grasp language concepts easily, math and writing come less easily. He theorized that this is because a lot of language learning happens through informal social interactions, whilst math/writing learning happens in more rigid school settings with unnecessary assessments. Vygotsky used this observation to argue for the importance of social interactions in learning. Instead of knowledge-based tests to assess students’ intelligence, we should examine their ability to solve problems in social contexts.
Vygotsky’s theories extended a school of thinking, constructivism, that emphasizes how individuals generate new knowledge through their experiences and ideas.⁵ Most famously associated with educational psychologist Jean Piaget’s ideas, constructivism also views the learner as having an active role in the educational process. Vygotsky’s work focussed on the social aspect of learning, claiming that the construction of knowledge happens through social interactions with peers, teachers and other adults. Termed social constructivism, this perspective can be seen clearly in the importance placed on social interactions within the Zone of Proximal Development.
In the years since his death, Vygotsky’s ZPD theory has been expanded and elaborated. One important addition, introduced in the 1950’s by Jermone Bruner, is the concept of ‘scaffolding’. It refers to the specific tools, resources and methods used by a teacher to aid learning when a student is in their ZPD, and has contributed to the practical application of Vygotsky’s ZPD theory. The scaffolding approach is now commonly seen in classrooms across the world, as well as other educational contexts.²
A further contemporary application, developed in the late 1970s, is Dynamic Assessment (DA). Broadly speaking, DA is an interactive assessment, where the instructor plays an active role in guiding the students through the assessment process. Following Vygotsky, the interactions between student and teacher within DA facilitate a clearer understanding of individuals’ ZPDs, whilst also providing better opportunities for development during the assessment process itself.⁶
The Soviet psychologist gained fame for his work on psychological development in children, including his ZPD theory. His theories cover a range of topics including the interrelation between language and thought development, the psychology of art and the role of cultural mediation in learning. Vygotsky was a very self-critical thinker and underwent several major transformations in his scientific thinking during his career, leading to much contemporary reinterpretation of his theories.
Best known for his work on child development, the Swiss psychologist is credited with the development of the constructivist perspective in educational theory. He argued that development in children is an autonomous and spontaneous process, within which learners take an active role in ‘constructing’ new understandings. His theories paved the way for Vygotsky’s development of the social constructivist view which underpins the ZPD theory.
Amongst his many contributions to cognitive and educational psychology, Bruner developed Vygotsky’s theories through the concept of ‘scaffolding’. He was also instrumental in the development of cognitive psychology, proposing that that sensation and perception were active, rather than passive, processes.
The ZPD theory has several implications for teachers, instructors and learners. The first is that to create optimal educational outcomes, we should appreciate individual differences in development and work with these differences. Rather than giving the same tasks and guidance to everyone, we should assess when individuals are in their ZPD for a specific skill, and design tasks and instructions that are individually appropriate.⁹
A second implication is that social interactions between learners and More Knowledgeable Others are a key aspect of learning. As well as highlighting the important role played by teachers/instructors, it also highlights how peer-to-peer interactions (facilitated by eg. group tasks) can play an important role in skill development. Vygotsky’s ZPD theory has contributed to the introduction of more dynamic teaching methods which focus on group tasks and interactions.⁶
For learners, understanding the concept of ZPD can help us to seek out assistance when we need it. For some people this is already easy, but for others this can be very hard. By recognizing the need for assistance, learners can become more comfortable getting help, improving their capacity to learn and develop.
A final consequence of ZPD theories is that we should look past standardized assessments (such as intelligence tests) to gauge individuals’ levels of development. Instead, we should focus on people’s ability to solve problems, either with or without assistance. Rather than viewing learning as an individual process, the ZPD theory encourages us to think about learning as a social process which can only be assessed in social settings.⁷
Although it is a well-known idea (within the educational psychology field), Vygotsky’s theory was left unfinished at the time of his death. This has led to the criticism that the theory is too loosely defined or abstract to be of real use in learning contexts.⁴ In particular, critics have noted that the theory does not explain how the process of development actually works. In fact, the concept of ZPD has been described as “probably one of the most used and least understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literatures”.⁸
Another issue with the theory is that it doesn’t apply to all social or cultural groups. For example, people with learning difficulties or social disorders may not be able to learn as effectively through social interactions, especially in peer-to-peer contexts.⁹ This means that, when applying a ZPD approach, instructors must be sensitive to different levels of social ability/comfort to create the best developmental outcomes.
Perhaps the biggest issue with a ZPD approach to education and development is that it can be quite hard to implement properly.ⁱ⁰ Because it requires instructors to assess individual students’ “zones” and develop individually tailored tasks, it is a very time-intensive method. This means that ZPD approaches are less effective in larger groups, where teachers have to divide their time and attention between more students. It has been argued that a bad application of the ZPD approach can actually have negative outcomes, such as decreased motivation (if the tasks are too easy) and decreased self-esteem (if the tasks are too hard). However, this problem usually comes up in the context of large school classes. In smaller groups, ZPD can still be a very effective approach.
Dynamic Assessments in EFL teaching
Vygotsky’s ZPD theory has paved the way for new approaches in teaching and education, particularly with regards to language education. As noted previously, the ZPD theory was used to argue against the use of standardized assessments, which involve students completing tasks/tests independently, before being evaluated and compared.
Seeking to understand the potential impact of Dynamic Assessment on education outcomes, Rashidi & Nejad⁶ conducted a study into English as a Second Language (ESL) students’ writing performance. The researchers separated the students into a control and experimental group, with the former being assessed with standardized testing and the experimental group receiving a DA.
Both groups were asked to complete an initial writing test (pretest). The control group then received some general advice on writing structure and style, before being asked to redraft their work with no chance to look back at it (posttest). For the experimental group, the initial task was followed by several dynamic assessment techniques such as brainstorming, group debates and branching (a visual idea generation technique). Students in the experimental group were then also asked to redraft their work, drawing on the guidance they had received.
A statistical analysis of both groups’ results revealed two key findings. Firstly, the experimental group had significantly better results on their posttest scores, as compared to their pretest scores. Contrastingly, the control group showed no significant improvement between pre and posttest. Secondly, the experimental group had significantly better scores on their posttest scores, compared to the posttest scores of the control groups. The authors use these results to argue that Dynamic Assessment is a useful and more effective approach than standardized assessments in language education.
While this study used a relatively small sample size (control: 10, experimental: 7) its results are consistent with a range of other studies focussing on DA in language teaching.⁶ Taken together, these investigations highlight the potential of ZPD-based teaching strategies, especially with regards to language education.
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