Think about all of the skills that you want to learn. Maybe you want to learn how to build your own house. At the moment, you have minimal experience building. You can read a blueprint and use basic hand tools, but wouldn’t even know where to begin building a house.
So how do you get from A to Z? Well, first you figure out how to get from A to B. Or A to C. Psychologists often apply the Zone of Proximal Development theory to this approach in order to guide educators and leaders as they teach new skills.
What is the Zone of Proximal Development?
The Zone of Proximal Development is an idea that refers to the gap between what a learner can learn and what a teacher can teach. This theory was created by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. It maps out how mentors and tools fit into an individual's plan for learning new skills.
How Does the Zone of Proximal Development Work?
Think of knowledge and skills as things that can be placed on a spectrum. You know and have mastered many things. For example, no one needs to help you read a blueprint or use basic hand tools. There are also skills and knowledge that you cannot complete independently. Going back to my example, you may not know how to build a home or delegate these tasks to a team.
But there is an “in-between” area here. There are skills that build on your ability to use hand tools, but these skills are just a piece of building a house. In the “in-between” area, a “More Knowledgeable Other” can guide you through these skills until you can complete them independently.
This “in-between” area is what Vygotsky called The Zone of Proximal Development. It’s the area where teachers, mentors, and parents can successfully teach a student, mentee, or child. Vygotsky called these teachers “More Knowledgeable Others,” or MKOs. (Vygotsky developed this idea long before website articles were around!)
Examples of the Zone of Proximal Development
Framing a house may be one of these skills. You need the ability to use hand tools and read a blueprint, but it’s just one component of building a house. A master carpenter can lead you through framing a few times before you can do this skill on your own or delegate this task to a team.
MKOs aren’t meant to hold the student’s hand or necessarily do the skill for the student. Effective MKOs simply offer guidance, tips, and suggestions. The right guidance may also depend on the student’s acquired skills and the way in which they learn best.
How Does Zone of Proximal Development Work in Learning and Education?
Does the MKO have to be an expert, a teacher, or even an adult? Not necessarily. Vygotsky defined an MKO as someone who had a better understanding of a skill, task, or concept than the person learning. Sometimes, that someone is a teacher. Or a parent. Other times, it’s a student in the classroom who helps another student. Teachers may effectively plan group activities or assign classmates using this theory.
Vygotsky was a strong advocate of social interaction. Social interaction consists of a cooperative dialogue. Through this cooperative dialogue, the student is able to not only perform the task, but also internalize it. This is when the real learning happens. Once the task is internalized, the student can guide themselves through the task and complete it without any guidance from an MKO.
Vygotsky developed the Zone of Proximal Development in the last three years of his life. He died at the age of 37 from tuberculosis. His work is so influential that other concepts in education have become synonymous with his name and ideas. When many educators discuss the ZPD, they follow up with an explanation of Scaffolding. While Vygotsky never mentioned anything about “scaffolding,” the psychologists who coined the term did so while studying his work.
Scaffolding is the idea that skills must be learned in a specific order, without jumping around. A foundational skill must be learned and mastered before a student can learn a more difficult skill. As the student moves “up” the scaffold and acquires new skills, less and less instruction from a teacher will be required.
Examples of “scaffolding” include:
- Modeling a skill that is repeated and understood by the student later
- Adapting or breaking down materials to meet a student’s current skill level
- Verbal cues, prompts, and clues
- Maintaining a student’s attention level throughout the entire process
Assessing the student’s current knowledge and their Zone of Proximal Development is also crucial to scaffolding. Without this assessment, a teacher could be teaching skills outside of the ZPD. Vygotsky believed that learning happened in steps. If a teacher “missed” a step, the student would have a significantly harder time learning the skill at hand.
How to Apply The Zone of Proximal Development To Your Goals
How can you apply these concepts to your own learning? Assessment is key. Everyone’s Zone of Proximal Development is different, and your personal ZPD will move as you start to learn new knowledge and skills. Assess where you are now and assess how you learn best. Do you learn best when someone models a skill for you? Or if they give you detailed instructions on how to complete the skill?
Once you have discovered a handful of skills that are a “step up” from what you know, find a More Knowledgeable Other. This could be a tutor, teacher, peer, or expert in a specific trade. It could be a YouTube tutorial. It could just be someone who you know has done the task before. Ask the MKO for guidance on the skill. Communicate the ways in which you learn best and how they can help you acquire new skills.
Once you have worked with an MKO, test out the new skill for yourself. Do you believe you have internalized the instructions based on your work with the MKO or others? If so, congratulations! You have “stepped up” and are ready to take on more skills. As you continue to climb the scaffold, you will reach your final goals and skills. Even the most unattainable skills can be learnt through this process.