Zone of proximal development
The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. It is a concept introduced, yet not fully developed, by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) during the last ten years of his life. Vygotsky stated that a child follows an adult's example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help. Vygotsky and some other educators believe that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning.
The concept of the zone of proximal development was originally developed by Vygotsky to argue against the use of academic, knowledge-based tests as a means to gauge students' intelligence. He also created ZPD to further develop Jean Piaget's theory of children being lone learners. Vygotsky spent a lot of time studying the impact of school instruction on children and noted that children grasp language concepts quite naturally, but that math and writing don’t come naturally, that these are concepts taught in schools and tend to come along with some difficulty, while Piaget believed that there was a clear distinction between development and teaching. He said that development is a spontaneous process that is initiated and completed by the children, stemming from their own efforts. Piaget was a proponent of independent thinking and critical of the standard teacher-led instruction that is common practice in schools.
Alternatively, Vygotsky saw natural, spontaneous development as important, but not all-important. He believed that children would not advance very far if they were left to discover everything on their own. He noted cultural experiences where children are greatly helped by knowledge and tools handed down from previous generations. Vygotsky noted that good teachers should present material that is too difficult and “pull the students along.”
Vygotsky argued that, rather than examining what a student knows to determine intelligence, it is better to examine his or her ability to solve problems independently and his or her ability to solve problems with an adult's help. He proposed a question: "if two children perform the same on a test, are their levels of development the same?" He concluded that they were not. However, Vygotsky's untimely death interrupted his work on the zone of proximal development, and it remained mostly incomplete.
Since Vygotsky's original conception, the definition for the zone of proximal development has been expanded and modified. The zone of proximal development is an area of learning that occurs when a person is assisted by a teacher or peer with a skill set higher than that of the subject. The person learning the skill set cannot complete it without the assistance of the teacher or peer. The teacher then helps the student attain the skill the student is trying to master, in hopes that the teacher will no longer be needed for that task.
Any function within the zone of proximal development matures within a particular internal context that includes not only the function’s actual level but also how susceptible the child is to types of help, the sequence in which these types of help are offered, the flexibility or rigidity of previously formed stereotypes, how willing the child is to collaborate, along with other factors. This context can impact the diagnosis of a function’s potential level of development.
Vygotsky stated that we can’t just look at what students are capable of doing on their own; we have to look at what they are capable of doing in a social setting. In many cases students are able to complete a task within a group before they are able to complete it on their own. He notes that the teacher’s job is to move the child’s mind forward step-by-step (after all, teachers can’t teach complex chemical equations to first-graders). At the same time, teachers can’t teach all children equally; they must determine which students are ready for which lessons. An example is the often-used accelerated reading program in schools. Students are assessed and given a reading level and a range. Books rated below their level are easy to read, while books above their level will challenge the student. Sometimes students are not even allowed to check out books from the school library that are outside of their range. Vygotsky argued that a major shortcoming of standardized tests is that they only measure what students are capable of on their own, not in a group setting where their minds are being pushed by other students.
The concept of the ZPD is widely used to study children's mental development as it relates to education. The ZPD concept is seen as a scaffolding, a structure of "support points" for performing an action. This refers to the help or guidance received from an adult or more competent peer to permit the child to work within the ZPD. Although Vygotsky himself never mentioned the term, scaffolding was first developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross, while applying Vygotsky's concept of ZPD to various educational contexts. According to Wass and Golding, giving students the hardest tasks they can do with scaffolding will lead to the greatest learning gains.
Scaffolding is a process through which a teacher or a more competent peer helps the student in his or her ZPD as necessary and tapers off this aid as it becomes unnecessary, much as a scaffold is removed from a building after construction is completed. "Scaffolding [is] the way the adult guides the child's learning via focused questions and positive interactions." This concept has been further developed by Ann Brown, among others. Several instructional programs were developed based on this interpretation of the ZPD, including reciprocal teaching and dynamic assessment. In order for scaffolding to work and have an effect, one must start at the child's level of knowledge and build from there.
One example of children using ZPD is when they are learning to speak. As their speech develops, it influences the way the child thinks, which in turn also influences the child's manner of speaking. Wells gives the example of dancing: when a person is learning how to dance, they look to others around them on the dance floor and imitate their moves. A person does not copy the dance moves exactly, but takes what they can and adds their own personality to it.
Another example of scaffolding is learning to drive. Parents and driving instructors guide driving students along the way by showing them the mechanics of how the car operates, the correct hand positions on the steering wheel, the technique of scanning the roadway, etc. As the student progresses, less and less instruction is needed, until they are ready to drive on their own.
Implications for educators
Various investigations, using different approaches and research frameworks have proved collaborative learning to be effective in many kinds of settings and contexts. Teachers should assign tasks that students cannot do on their own, but which they can do with assistance; they should provide just enough assistance so that students learn to complete the tasks independently and then provide an environment that enables students to do harder tasks than would otherwise be possible. In the context of adults, peers should challenge each other in order to support collaboration and success.
- Constructivism (learning theory)
- Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)
- Educational psychology
- Social constructivism (learning theory)
- Sociocultural theory
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