The term "zone of proximal development" refers to a concept developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The concept refers to the difference between a learner's ability to perform a task independently versus with guidance.
- A student is able to perform simple addition when working with a teacher or parent, but is frustrated when performing the task alone. By guiding the student to use tools and strategies, and by asking questions about why he/she is using each tool or strategy, the student is able to fortify knowledge and eventually add independently.
- A college student is able to understand the current philosophy that is being studied when it is discussed in class but struggles on his own. The professor works with the student to help him to learn how to approach the philosophy book and how to consider the right questions to ask himself while reading alone.
- An aspiring baker creates amazing cakes when working with her mentor, but alone finds that she is struggling. By working with her mentor, the baker is able to learn what she needs in order to independently create the product she desires.
- Tennis students are able to hit the ball over the net but are challenged by serving. Through appropriate coaching that focuses on their strengths, they are able to learn to serve the ball effectively.
- A painter struggles to properly mix color when painting alone, but is able to do so when with his professor. Working together, the painter is able to learn how to create the colors that he desires by listening and learning from his professor who guides him toward independence.
- A 16 year old is able to effectively drive forward and backward but cannot parallel park. Through targeted guidance from a teacher, the child is able to learn how to park.
- A medical student struggles to effectively put in stitches. A more experienced student helps her to learn how to do so through modeling, then helping, then releasing full responsibility to the newer student.
- A child is struggling to learn how to read. By working with the student to teach how to sound out words and use other word recognition strategies, the child is able to learn to read.
- An aspiring swimmer is attempting to learn a difficult dive. Knowing the strengths that she possesses in other diving techniques, her coach is able to directly target her instruction so that she can confidently conquer the dive.
Vygotsky's work regarding the zone of proximal development has contributed greatly to the field of education and is used in developing age appropriate curriculum and teaching techniques.
By understanding what children are able to achieve alone, as well as what they are able to achieve with assistance from an adult, educators can develop plans to teach skills in the most effective manner possible, giving students a gradual release of responsibility to perform tasks independently. This process is referred to as scaffolding, which is the way in which an adult helps the child learner to move from the inability to perform a task to being able to do so through guidance, interaction and questions.
Reviewing these examples will hopefully help you to better understand how the zone of proximal development works in the real world.