The Zone of Proximal Development: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

What is the Zone of proximal development and how can teacher's use this concept to promote learning outcomes?

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

The zone of proximal development (ZPD), is a concept frequently used in lecture theatres by university professors but why is it important for classrooms in helping learners with skill development? The main idea of the Zone of proximal development is that a person with more knowledge can enhance a student’s learning by guiding them through a task slightly above their aptitude. As the learner gains more competence, the expert steadily stops guidance until the learner becomes able to do the task by themselves. In this article, we will argue that with an appropriate level of adult guidance we cannot only improve access to education but we can advance learning outcomes for the more able student.

Zone of proximal development diagram
zone of proximal development diagram

The zone of proximal development indicates the difference between what a student can do without guidance and what he can achieve with the encouragement and guidance of a skilled partner.

Therefore, the term “proximal” relates to those skills that the student is “close” to mastering. This theory of learning can be useful for teachers.

Reflective Questions

1. How does ZPD relate to other concepts such as scaffolding or peer tutoring?

2. Why are some students better at using this approach than others?

3. Can you think of any situations where it would be useful for teachers to use this strategy?

4. Is there anything else we should know about ZPD?

5. Do you have any ideas on how to implement this strategy into your own teaching practice?


History of Zone of Proximal Development

In the 1900s, Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed the idea of the ZPD. Vygotsky acknowledged that every individual has '2' stages of skill development:

  • A level that can be achieved by one's self.
  • A level that someone can achieve by seeking help from an experienced person or teacher.

Vygotsky named the level a person can achieve through help as his ZPD.

Vygotsky suggested that when a learner is in the ZPD for a specific task, offering the appropriate guidance will give the learner enough of a "boost" to accomplish the task. However, if the learner lacks sufficient experience, then the instructor must provide additional support so that the learner can reach the next stage of mastery.

This process continues until the learner reaches the highest possible level of proficiency.

Conceptualising the zone of proximal development
Conceptualising the zone of proximal development

How Does It Work?

When a learner needs assistance, they ask their peers or instructors for advice. The instructor provides feedback based on the learner's performance. This helps them learn new strategies and techniques. As the learner masters these new skills, the instructor gradually reduces her involvement until she no longer offers direct instruction. At this point, the learner is capable of performing the activity independently. 


Zone of Proximal Development in the Classroom

To help a student to move through the zone of proximal development, teachers must focus on three essential components that facilitate the learning process:

  • The presence of another person with skills and knowledge beyond that of the student (a more skilled other). The more knowledgeable other is relatively self-explanatory; it shows a person with a higher ability level or more knowledge than the student, concerning a specific task or concept.
  • A learner's social interaction with a skilled educator enables the learner to observe and apply their knowledge. Vygotsky (1978) believes that a child's more important learning occurs using a social interaction with a skilled mentor. The instructor may provide verbal instructions or model certain behaviours for the child. Vygotsky termed this as collaborative or cooperative The child strives to recognize the instructions or actions provided by the more skilled person (mostly the teacher or parent) then internalizes the knowledge, using it to regulate or improve his performance.
  • Scaffolding, or helpful workouts provided by the instructor, or more knowledgeable peer, to guide the student as he moves through the ZPD.

Zone of proximal development as a staircase
Zone of proximal development as a staircase

The implications for classroom practice are profound. If we can scaffold the cognitive function of a child at an appropriate level, we can enable them to advance their learning and develop new skills. In a classroom setting, we want to improve both access to the curriculum and the level of challenge. Our alternative approach to lesson planning and delivery using the universal thinking framework enables educators to fully embrace this philosophy.


The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding

The concept of pairing guidance with a student is termed scaffolding. The ZPD is frequently used in the literature as the term scaffolding. But, it is must be remembered that Vygotsky never used this word in his writing, and it was first used by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976). The individual performing the scaffolding can be a peer, a teacher, or even a parent.

To help students gain independence, Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) defined support and supervision offered by a more capable or knowledgeable person (instructor or parent) to perform a task that the child would not be able to perform independently.

Students take easy and manageable steps to achieve a goal. Working in partnership with more knowledgeable peers or a skilled instructor will help learners in making connections between different concepts.

Scaffolding the learning process
Scaffolding the learning process with the Universal Thinking Framework

As students thrive within their zone of proximal development and come to be more confident, they perform new tasks using the social support that exists around them. Vygotsky proposed that learning takes place using meaningful and purposeful interactions with others. We have been embracing this learning theory within our concept of mental modelling. This collaborative learning approach enables students to take their thinking out of their head where they have more capacity. Using brightly coloured blocks, students organise their thoughts and develop new ideas.Uses of this methodology take their current knowledge and build on it with others (quite literally). Their previous knowledge acts as a foundation for increasing their conceptual understanding of the topic in question. The students level of knowledge is reflected within the sophistication of the structure of their build. When students are in the 'zone', their learning potential is significantly increased.

Graphic organisers as a scaffolding tool
graphic organisers as a scaffolding tool

This approach to classroom learning makes activities such as language learning more engaging and at the same time more challenging. The incremental nature of block building means that a student working memory is rarely overloaded. The level of flexibility within the strategy means that it can be used for discovery learning or at the other end of the spectrum, direct instruction approaches. The blocks can be used to make abstract concepts more concrete. The connections between concepts can be illustrated using the connections between the blocks. This visual queue acts as a 'memory anchor' that serves as a retrieval aid. This process is a perfect example of the concept of scaffolding.

ZPD for lesson planning

Classroom learning should be challenging enough to be engaging and the concept of proximal development comes in very useful when thinking about activities such as lesson planning. If we can break classroom tasks down into manageable chunks, with the correct adult assistance, we can enable a pupil to think their way through most challenges. Improving access to education is a global goal we all share. Our community of practice has demonstrated how this can be achieved by utilising the latest thinking in cognitive science. You don't need to be a professor of education to embrace powerful psychological principles of the mind. Instructional concepts such as dual coding, mind-mapping and oracy all enable children to push the boundaries of what they are capable of. The adult becomes the facilitator instead of the deliverer of knowledge construction.

The Zone of Proximal Development in the Classroom
The Zone of Proximal Development in the Classroom

Theory of Assisted Problem Solving

Wood and Middleton (1975) examined the interaction between 4-year-old children and their mothers in a problem-solving situation. The children had to use a set of pegs and blocks to create a 3D model using a picture. The task was too difficult for these children to complete on their own.

Wood and Middleton (1975) evaluated how mothers assisted their children to create the 3D model. Different kinds of support included:

  • Direct demonstration (e.g., by placing one block on another, and showing it to the child)
  • General encouragement (g., by saying ‘Now you must try.’)
  • Specific instructions (e.g., by saying ‘get two small blocks.’

This study revealed that no single strategy was sufficient to help each child to progress. Mothers, who modified their help according to their children's performance were found to be the most successful. When these mothers saw their children doing well, they reduced their level of help.

And, when they saw their child began to struggle, they increased their level of help by providing specific instructions until the child showed progress again.

This study illustrates Vygotsky's concept of the ZPD and scaffolding. Scaffolding (or guidance) is most beneficial when the support is according to the specific needs of a child. This puts a child in a position to gain success in an activity that he would not have been able to do in the past.

Wood et al. (1976) mentioned some processes that help effective scaffolding:

  • Making the task easier.
  • Increasing and upholding the learner’s interest in the task.
  • Explaining the task.
  • Highlighting some aspects that will guide the solution.
  • Controlling the level of frustration in the child.

The Zone of Proximal Development is an important classroom concept
The Zone of Proximal Development is an important classroom concept


Implications of the Zone of Proximal Development for Teachers

Vygotsky argues that the role of education is to provide those experiences to children which are in their ZPD, thereby advancing and encouraging their knowledge.

 Vygotsky believes that the teachers are like a mediator in the children's learning activity as they share information through social interaction.

Vygotsky perceived interaction with peers as a helpful way to build skills. He implies that for children with low competence teachers need to use cooperative learning strategies and they must seek help from more competent peers in the zone of proximal development.

Scaffolding is a significant component of effective teaching, in which the more competent individual continually modifies the level of his help according to the learner's performance level.

Scaffolding in the classroom may include modelling a talent, providing cues or hints, and adapting activity or material. Teachers need to consider the following guidelines for scaffolding instruction.

  • Assess the current ability level of the learner for creating the academic content.
  • Relate content to what learners already know.
  • Divide a task into small, simpler tasks with opportunities for regular feedback.
  • Use vocal prompts and cues to help students.
  • Scaffolding not only generates quick results but also instils the abilities needed for autonomous problem-solving in the upcoming time.

A current application of Vygotsky's concepts is "reciprocal teaching," used to enhance students' ability to memorize from the text. In this type of teaching, educator and learners collaborate to memorize and practice four major skills: predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing. The role of a teacher in this process is decreased over time.

Vygotsky's theories also address the recent interest in collaborative learning, implying that group members mostly have different levels of talent so more advanced peers must help less advanced students within their zone of proximal development.

Scaffolding the thinking process
Scaffolding the thinking process

Statistics relating to the Zone of Proximal Development

  • Researchers in the 1960s and 1970s argued that Piaget may have underestimated children's abilities by using confusing terms and particularly difficult tasks in his observations. (
  • According to Vygotsky (1978), much important learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a skillful tutor. (
  • According to Schwartz (2001), the Zone of Proximal Development can be extended through four different scenarios of supporting children in their learning: (



Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. Readings on the development of children, 23(3), 34-41.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 17(2), 89-100.

Wood, D., & Middleton, D. (1975). A study of assisted problem‐solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66(2), 181-191.