The zone of proximal development (ZPD), also known as the zone of potential development, is a concept often used in classrooms to help students with skill development.

The core idea of the ZPD is that a more knowledgeable person can enhance a student’s learning by guiding them through a task slightly above their ability level.

As the student becomes more competent, the expert gradually stops helping until the student can perform the skill by themselves.

The idea of the ZPD came from a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky in the early 1900s. Vygotsky believed that every person has two stages of skill development:

  1. a level they can achieve by themselves
  2. a level they can achieve with the help of an experienced mentor or teacher

He referred to the level an individual can achieve with help as their ZPD.

The idea of pairing instruction with a student is known as scaffolding, which is one of the core concepts of Vygotsky’s idea of the ZPD. The person performing the scaffolding can be a teacher, a parent, or even a peer.

Scaffolding and the ZPD are often used in preschool and elementary classrooms, but the same principles can be applied outside of a school setting.

A parent teaching a child how to ride a bike or a coach walking an athlete through how to throw a ball are also an example of these concepts.

In this article, we’ll break down the different stages of the ZPD and explain how the ZPD and scaffolding can be practically applied to help an individual’s learning.

The ZPD can be broken into three stages. Think of them as a series of overlapping circles:

  1. Tasks the learner can do without assistance. This category includes everything a person can do without help from a more experienced individual.
  2. Tasks the learner can do with assistance. This category includes tasks a person can’t work through by themselves but can work through with help, also known as their ZPD.
  3. Tasks the learner can’t do with assistance. The final category includes tasks that are too difficult to perform even with an instructor’s help. For example, a young child might be able to spell out their own name by themselves but might need help from someone else to write the complete alphabet. The task is above their skill level and outside their ZPD.

Instructional scaffolding is a method of teaching that helps a student learn a new skill.

It involves a more knowledgeable person guiding a student through a task that’s in their ZPD. As a learner’s ability to complete a skill improves, the instructor should lessen the amount of aid they provide.

The concept can be applied in the classroom to a variety of subjects, including language, math, and science.

Teachers can use scaffolding by using techniques like:

  • modeling
  • providing examples
  • working one-on-one with students
  • using visual aids

Scaffolding can also be used outside the classroom. Many coaches may use scaffolding in sports to teach athletes new motor skills.

Scaffolding provides a student with a supportive learning environment where they can ask questions and receive feedback. The following are some benefits of scaffolding a student:

  • motivates the learner
  • minimizes frustration for the learner
  • allows the learner to learn quickly
  • provides a personalized teaching experience
  • allows for efficient learning

The following are examples of questions you could ask a learner while scaffolding them to help them with their learning:

  • What else could you do here?
  • When you do this, what happens?
  • What do you notice?
  • What could we do next?
  • Why do you think that happened?

Who can be a ‘more knowledgeable other’?

In Vygotsky’s framework, the “more knowledgeable other” is a term for someone who guides a learner through a new skill.

This can be anybody with a mastery of the skill being taught. In a classroom setting, it’s often a teacher or tutor.

However, even a peer with mastery of the subject could potentially scaffold another student.

When performed properly, the concept of the ZPD and scaffolding can help students solve problems that would otherwise be beyond their capability. Here are a couple examples of how it could be used in the classroom.

Example 1

A kindergarten student is learning how to add two numbers together. They can successfully add numbers together that are less than 10 but have trouble with bigger numbers.

Their teacher shows them an example of how to solve a problem using large numbers before getting them to try a similar problem themselves. When the student gets stuck, the teacher provides hints.

Example 2

A child in preschool is trying to learn how to draw a rectangle. Their teacher breaks down the process for them by first drawing two horizontal lines and then drawing two vertical lines. They ask the student to do the same.

Even though scaffolding has many benefits for learners, there may also be some challenges in a classroom setting.

To properly scaffold, the teacher needs to have an understanding of a student’s ZPD to make sure the student works at an appropriate level.

Scaffolding works best when a student is working within their skill level. If they’re working above their ZPD, they won’t benefit from scaffolding.

The following are also potential problems in the classroom when it comes to scaffolding:

  • It can be very time consuming.
  • There may not be enough instructors for each student.
  • Instructors need to be properly trained to get the full benefit.
  • It’s easy to misjudge a student’s ZPD.
  • Teachers need to take an individual student’s need into account.

The ZPD and scaffolding are two concepts that can efficiently help someone learn a skill.

Scaffolding involves an experienced instructor guiding a learner through a task that’s in their ZPD. An individual’s ZPD includes any task that can only be completed with help.

When scaffolding a learner, the goal isn’t to feed the learner answers but to aid their learning with certain techniques, like prompting, modeling, or giving clues.

As a learner starts to master a skill, the amount of support given should be reduced.