The zone of proximal development (ZPD), or zone of potential development, refers to the range of abilities an individual can perform with the guidance of an expert, but cannot yet perform on their own.
Developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, this learning theory may be observed in a classroom setting or anywhere else where an individual has the opportunity to develop new skills.
Vygotsky is known for his sociocultural theory, which suggests that cognitive development is a result of social interactions and these interactions can differ from one culture to the next.
Stages of the Zone of Proximal Development
There are three distinct categories where a learner may fall in terms of their skill set. For learning to take place, it's critical that the expert understands the learner's specific ZPD stage.
Tasks a Learner Cannot Accomplish With Assistance
Tasks that are outside of the learner's ZPD are those that are unable to be completed even with the help of an expert.
If the task isn't within the learner's ZPD, the expert may look to decrease the level of difficulty and find tasks that are more appropriate given the learner's skill level.
Tasks a Learner Can Accomplish With Assistance
When a learner is close to mastering a skill set required to complete a task but still needs the guidance of an expert to do so, they are considered to be in their zone of proximal development.
In this situation, an expert may use various techniques to help the learner better understand the concepts and skills required to perform a task on their own.
Tasks a Learner Can Accomplish Without Assistance
In this phase, the learner is able to complete tasks independently and has mastered the skill set required to do so. The learner does not need the help of an expert.
When a learner has reached this stage, the expert may increase the task difficulty level in order to find the learner's next ZPD and encourage further learning.
Key Components of the Zone of Proximal Development
There are several core concepts developed by Vygotsky and expanded upon by others following him that have helped round out this learning theory.
The success of this learning process involves these key components:
- The presence of someone with the knowledge and skills to guide the learner
- Supportive activities, known as scaffolding, provided by the expert that help guide the learner
- Social interactions that allow the learner to work on their skills and abilities
7 Main Developmental Theories
The "More Knowledgeable Other"
The "more knowledgeable other" is someone who has a higher level of knowledge than the learner and is able to provide them with instruction during their learning process.
While a child might not yet be capable of doing something on their own, they are able to perform the task with the assistance of a skilled instructor, which may include a parent, a teacher, another adult, or a peer.
When a child is in their ZPD, an expert will provide them with appropriate assistance to help them accomplish a new task or skill. Activities, instructions, tools, and resources that are used to aid in this learning process are known as scaffolding.
Examples of scaffolding that educators may use include:
- Asking a student what they think should be done next, what their thought process was, or if there are other ways the problem can be solved
- Modeling how to solve a similar problem or complete a similar task
- Putting students in small groups and having them discuss a new concept before engaging in it
- Using visual aids to help students conceptualize a task prior to engaging in it
- Asking students to use prior knowledge to better understand more complex topics
- Using meta-cognitive online tools such as self-assessment of material and self-correcting to help students learn concepts
Eventually, scaffolding can be removed and the student will be able to complete the task independently.
While scaffolding is most often associated with the zone of proximal development, it is not a concept that was initially introduced by Vygotsky. Instead, this term has been put forth by other researchers who have expanded on his original theories.
For learning to take place, Vygotsky believed that social interaction between a more knowledgeable other and the learner was critical. While the expert may be an adult, Vygotsky also emphasized the power of peer learning.
For instance, when kids are learning a new concept, social interaction between the adult expert and all of the children is initially crucial. But, if some children grasp the concept, while others are still in their ZPD, peer interaction may create the most conducive environment for learning.
Zone of Proximal Development Applications in the Classroom
The zone of proximal development is a moving target. By giving children tasks that they cannot quite do easily on their own and providing the guidance they need to accomplish them, educators can progressively advance the learning process.
Here are some examples of how the zone of proximal development is used in the classroom:
- A teacher in an experimental psychology course might initially provide scaffolding for students by coaching them through their experiments. Next, theteacher slowly removes the scaffolding by only providing brief descriptions of how to proceed. Finally, students would be expected to develop and carry out their experiments independently.
- A teacher may provide traceable worksheets to students learning how to write the alphabet. The teacher may also use a whiteboard to model the steps it takes to write letters. If some students get stuck, the teacher may have them practice on the whiteboard together until the skill is mastered.
- For children learning another language, a teacher may write a sentence on the board, read it aloud, then encourage the students to take turns reading it aloud themselves. The teacher may then split the children into groups to practice reading together before assigning reading homework to do independently.
What Is Sociocultural Theory?
Potential Challenges of the Zone of Proximal Development
While scaffolding can be incredibly helpful for students learning a new concept or skill, if the teacher is unaware of each student's unique ZPD, these learning techniques may not be effective.
According to research, other difficulties educators may encounter include:
- Not having enough time and/or resources to understand each student's ZPD
- Having too many students to properly understand each one's ever-changing ZPD
- Not fully understanding the concept of ZPD and/or scaffolding
- Struggling to maintain enough cognitive flexibility to carry out scaffolding
- Not being organized enough to follow through with scaffolding
A Word From Verywell
The zone of proximal development is an important concept in the fields of both education and psychology. By understanding how the ZPD works, educators and experts can be better prepared to create instruction and learning programs that maximize the tools and resources available to students.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS,is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)"and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.
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