MET:Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

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This page originally authored by Zilong Zhai and Rob Kim (2007).
This page has been revised by SimonJay Moreton (2008)and Dawinder Mann (2009). Recently updated by Charlotte Paterson (2015) Recently updated by Danielle Peters (2017)

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, developed a social constructivism view of learning, in which his zone of proximal development served as a central guiding principle for educators and future learning theories. Cognitive-Construction theories point towards learners or students constructing their own set of knowledge. Jean Piaget was one of the first to look at learners internalizing knowledge. Lev Vygotsky expanded on Piaget's ideas and specifically looked at how social interactions and collaboration allowed for learners to learn. Whereas Piaget believed that development has an endpoint and consisted of four main periods of growth (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations), Vygotsky believed that development was a life-long process which was too complex to be defined by stages (Driscoll, 1994). For Piaget, phases would disappear as the child reached a new level of development, but for Vygotsky, each internalization served as a tool for higher thinking (Driscoll, 1994).

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a pioneer psychologist, who was a prolific writer in the field of psychology (Blunden, 2007). . He was considered an innovator and his main interests involved developmental psychology, education, and child development. Vygotsky developed three general themes in his writing, as elaborated by Jerome Bruner in the foreword of Thought and Language:

“The theoretical perspective outlined by Lev Semenovich Vygotsky can be understood in terms of three general themes that run throughout his writings:

  • (a) the use of a genetic, or developmental method;
  • (b) the claim that higher mental functioning in the individual emerges out of social processes; and
  • (c) the claim that human social and psychological processes are fundamentally shaped by cultural tools, or mediational means.”

Vygotsky became extremely interested in child development and his second theme looked at how social interactions had an impact on childhood development. From there he produced some of his bigger concepts like internalization and the zone of proximal development.

Zone of Proximal Development

R.G. Tharp and R. Gallimore's (1988) modified zone of proximal development

"What a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow" (Vygotsky, p. 81, 1978).

Unlike Piagetian theory, where a child would be just influenced by society, Vygotsky sought to explain the development of a child through a transformative collaborative practice which involved cultural influences, cultural tools, and other individuals (Vianna, 2006). The emphasis on this developmental learning is collaboration, which leads to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). Vygotsky viewed the ZPD as the gap between where the learner currently resided and the learner’s potential for development. Vygotsky’s famous definition of zone of proximal development states that the ZPD is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, p. 86, 1978). Or in other words, the ZPD is an area where the child cannot solve the problem alone but can successfully solve it under the guidance or in collaboration with an adult or a more advanced peer – this is where real learning is possible (Woolfolk, 2000, p. 47).

Within this definition, all three themes of Vygotsky’s writings are apparent. There is a social aspect consisting of someone with expertise to provide guidance. In conjunction with various cultural mediators, like symbols or even technology, the social connections allow for internalization of these processes to be applied in the future by the learners themselves. The above diagram is a modified version of Vygotsky’s zone of development by R.G. Tharp and R. Gallimore (1988). As shown, through the assistance of others, a learner may be able to achieve much more than learning by themselves. The zone of proximal development represents a place where the learner is challenged enough and may be frustrated without the aid of another expertise individual. The idea of guidance has been seen in scaffolding, where the learner’s knowledge is constructed in a layered manner, with each level of instruction building upon another layer (Oxford, 1997). The guidance of more competent peers aids in the learner’s experience (Vygotsky, 1978). The key is eventually the learner will be able to do the same-related tasks or understand a concept without the aid of the peer or educator. However, educators, parents, and competent peers must bear in mind that the activities in which the child engages be neither too difficult nor too simple, leading to successful growth (Lefrancois, 1997).

The following Stop Motion video addresses the importance of the Zone of Proximal Development and highlights the importance of scaffolding in learning.
Created by Charlotte Paterson, February 2015
This is a Stop Motion video looking at the Zone of Proximal Development and its implications on learning.
Created by Jonathan Nilson, June 2015

Implications on Education and Learning

The zone of proximal development is often applied for use in language acquisition. From the ZPD and Jerome Bruner’s cognitive theory, the use of cultural tools, in conjunction with social interactions, has opened up a vast expanse of learning environments. Vygotsky’s third theme comes into sharp focus, especially in today’s world of technology. From D. H. Jonassen’s (1999) constructivist learning environments (CLE) to Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms (2003), Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development assumes an integral dynamic within the frameworks of these new environments.

LEGO toys based on Papert's Mindstorms

Several strategies like communities of learners, scaffolding and reciprocal teaching provide ways to access the zone of proximal development. However, scaffolding requires an evolution of the typical teacher, no longer is the person taking apart the knowledge to be memorized by the students, who simply recite things back (Hausfather,1996). The ZPD has tweaked all previous constructs of a teacher. No longer an instructor, the terms “coach”, "facilitator" or "guide" may better describe the evolving roles of teachers. This "coach" does not even need to be a teacher, he or she can be a fellow student, a family member, a friend, or even a casual interaction with someone. This is the idea of the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). This term reflects the idea that most learning done by children occurs through social interactions with people who are more skilled and who have a better understanding than the learner. The learner constructs and validates his or her own set of knowledge with the prodding and instructions of his or her more knowledgeable other. Knowledge is negotiated and achieved through collaborative work (Mishra, 2002). The MKO may even model behaviour until eventually the learner has mastered the new set of knowledge or skill. The key for educators is finding and striking a balance within each student’s ZPD and dealing with multiple zones of proximal development (Brown, 1992). Therein lays the problem and challenges of the concept of the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky had no way of predicting that his idea of cultural tools would morph into something huge like computer technology. The limits of physical space are being broken down through social interaction over cyberspace through concepts like KnowledgeForum. With studies showing that learning contexts involving technology can promote positive change (Crawford, 1996), the boundaries of social interaction are pushing Vygotsky's zone of proximal development.

Teaching at a student’s Zone of Proximal Development is about bridging barriers By: Simonjay Moreton

Implementing teaching at the Student’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Vygotskysegregated a child’s development into three stages, wherein each stage is a consequence of learning from observing and interacting with his/her immediate social environment (Wertsch & Hickmann, 1987).

The first developmental stage occurs at age 2,when the child begins to merge his/her thoughts and speech to communicate with others. After a child has learned how to speak, at age 3, the child will deliberately separate his/her speech into two distinct forms. The first form of speech is to communicate with and influence others, while the second form of speech is a private speech where the child talks aloud to him/herself and uses this speech to guide his/her thinking and actions. The next stage of a child’s development occurs at age 7 when private speech becomes inner speech. At this point in development, a child is able to take a situation or problem and instead of asking guidance from an adult, the child will turn inward and appeal to its own knowledge and understanding to find a solution to the problem (Wertsch & Hickmann, 1987).

To assess whether or not students where indeed learning within the Zone of Proximal Devleopment, Vygotsky focuses on the dynamic assessment where the potential developmental levels are being assessed rather than the child’s actual level. Instead of testing for what the child already knows, dynamic assessment tries to identify the zone of proximal development by asking the child to solve a problem, then giving prompts, hints, and clues to see how the child learns, adapts, and uses the guidance. The teacher observes and notes how much support is needed to determine how much help and what level of support is necessary. Afterwards, this information is applied to plan learning tasks, peer tutoring, assignments, and so on (Woolfolk, 2000, p. 47).

In addition, Rogoff (Miller, 2002) also reminds us that the zone of proximal development does not need to be explicit with the intention to teach. Learning can be done from a distance (not just in face-to-face situations). Learning does not have to be verbal either. Examples of supporting the child in the zone are: guided participation, apprenticeship, collaboration, encouragement to try new skills, using prompts, modeling, using leading questions, etc.

Learning is Rooted in Culture


Vygotsky recognizes that a child’s development comes as a consequence of learning through observation, listening, and interacting with the people and elements in one’s immediate environment (Wertsch and Hickmann, 1987). As the child interacts with peers and adults in his/her social environment, the child learns how to use the culture’s psychological and technical tools to control his/her thoughts and behaviour within the environment he/she has been placed/born into (Wertsch & Hickmann, 1987; Marsh & Ketterer, 2005). Therefore, through the influence of culture, the child moves from elementary (natural, unlearned) mental functions into higher mental functions such as thinking (LeFrancois, 1997)

The following is a brief overview of ZPD, as well as an example that combines culture and the zone of proximal development. The video contains an example of ZPD using Guitar Hero, a game that is a new phenomenon that has received much popularity in recent years – along with similar titles like Rock Band that are available for many video game systems.

Effective Teaching


To effectively teach at a child’s ZPD a teacher must understand the preferred learning methods of the children they are teaching. The teacher must also understand the cultural context they are teaching in and be culturally sensitive about any issues that the community or culture consider controversial (Kleinfeld, 1998). For many teachers, teaching in a “southern” based provincial school is easier than teaching in the remote areas of the “north”, as the students, the curriculum, and the teaching pedagogy have all been developed and implemented in the “south” and reflect the cultural morals, values, skills, and ethics deemed necessary to become an active participant in a "southern" society.

Problems Implementing ZPD Across Cultures

Problems arise when “southern” born, raised, and educated teachers begin to teach Inuit students, and other first nations people, in remote and isolated regions of northern Canada. In these remote communities teachers might teach within a multilevel classroom where there may be as many as three levels of a subject being taught at once (Towards Excellence, 2002; Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2007). Apart from the various knowledge levels of a subject that may be found in one class, a teacher will have to adapt his/her teaching style from using a "guide on the side" to a more direct method as life skills such as hunting, fishing, survival, child rearing, parenting skills, and making clothes were traditionally taught to Inuit children who learned by observing their elders performing the task and then mimicking what they saw (Minogue, 2005; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2004). According to Howard Gardner, there are several distinct learning styles: Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, and Logical -Mathematical (Lane, n.d.). As the Inuit have learned by imitating the skills demonstrated by their elders, for hundreds of years, we might have to adapt the "southern" based teaching pedagogy to be more hands on when teaching in the north. By moving away from a "southern" based teaching pedagogy, classes would become more hands on as students participate in hands on activities, demonstrations, and other interactive activities that teach the subject matter in a culturally relevant context. This type of teaching would involve combining the visual-spatial and bodily-kinesthetics of learning, both of which have been found to be the preferred methods of teaching and learning among the Inuit (Weber, 1996). In this way, we might be able to educate the next generation of Inuit children by teaching skills that are valued in their culture in a way the children can understand and relate to.


As teaching and learning at a student’s ZPD is based on one’s culture, the “southern” based curriculum must be modified if it is going to be implemented in effectively teaching the Inuit of northern Canada as the skills students develop after completing the “southern” based K-12 curriculum enable the student to participate and function in a southern based society and culture. These southern based skills aren’t crucial to survival or life in the north, and this is why a “southern” based education isn’t regarded by parents or the elders of these northern communities as being essential for their children to acquire (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2004).

Teaching at the ZPD to bridge cultural barriers

Today, northern based school boards are taking the culture and background of its students into account.

“Student self-esteem and school performance suffer when schools do not reflect and value the culture of the students” (Berger, 2006).

It is for this reason that northern school curricula are being modified to include courses that teach Inuit traditional life - skills such as speaking in Inuktitut, hunting, fishing, clothes making, and the basic survival skills deemed necessary to live and survive off the land.

Apart from culturally relevant courses being developed and implemented, teachers new to the north are being encouraged to learn about the Inuit culture by completing relevant courses and by participating in traditional Inuit activities (Nunablog, 2006).

These cultural “exchanges” are designed to bridge cultural barriers and give the teacher enough knowledge and background about the Inuit traditional way of life so that the teacher can teach the core curriculum objectives by relating the prescribed curriculum to elements and examples that can be found in the north (Nunablog, 2006). This puts the topic under investigation into a context that the student can comprehend and relate to; it is here, at the student’s ZPD, that learning can take place.

References for this section

Berger, P. (2006). Practices against culture that “work” in Nunavut schools: Problematizing two common practices”. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from the BNET Web site:

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. (2007). Retrieved January 28, 2008, from the Indian and Northern Affairs Web site:

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (2004, October 20). Backgrounder on Inuit and Education. Retrieved January 28, 2008, from

Kleinfeld, J. S. (Spring, 1998). The Use of Case Studies in Preparing Teachers for Cultural Diversity. Retrieved February 5, 2008, from

Lane, C. (n.d.). Multiple Intelligences. Retrieved January 25, 2008, from

Marsh, G. E., & Ketterer, J.J. (2005). Situating the Zone of Proximal Development. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration Web site:

Minogue, S. (2005, October 21). Why Inuit men are falling behind. Retrieved January 28, 2008, from the Nunatsiaq News Web site:

Nunablog. (2006, March 23). A visit to the big city. Retrieved February 7, 2008 from

Towards Excellence. (2002, September). Retrieved February 8, 2008, from the Northwest Territories Web site:

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weber, E. (1996). Lessons from an Inuit Community on Baffin Island. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from

Additional Resources

Stop Motion Artifact

This is a Stop Motion video looking at the Zone of Proximal Development in the elementary classroom. Created by Danielle Peters, January 2016 ETEC 510
The following Stop Motion video demonstrates the importance of the Zone of Proximal Development in education. Created by Sarah Jones, January 2018


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See Also