This post was written by Ellen Newman, an adjunct professor of psychology at IE University in Spain. A veteran student and teacher of psychology, having earned a BA in the field from Harvard and a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Michigan, Ellen joined the extended Brainscape team in 2014.
You may have never heard of the zone of proximal development, but you’re probably already familiar with it.
Do you know how to ride a bike? If so, it is likely you started with training wheels. Remember those? The little wheels on either side of the rear bike wheel that were often so uneven that as you blazed around the neighborhood, handlebar streamers flying back, you bobbled from side to side, producing that telltale training-wheel clatter!
Or perhaps you are from a younger generation and you learned on those foot-powered (pedal-less) bikes that I keep seeing here around the sidewalks of Madrid. On these bikes, children scoot around, feet on the ground, learning to steer and balance on two wheels while never having to pedal.
You have probably never considered why so many of us started with these training aids, because the answer seems obvious: it is too challenging to learn to ride a bike all at once. Instead, you need to master some of the individual skills one at a time and in an appropriate incremental sequence.
With this in mind, have you ever considered how many other skills in your life you might be trying to learn without the appropriate training aids or without the appropriate incremental steps? It turns out that effectively managing such scaffolding is the most important way to optimize your learning.
Enter the Zone of Proximal Development
Across development, we have both physical and mental limitations that may allow us to grasp some concepts earlier than others. This idea was codified in the seminal work of a Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygostky (e.g., 1934/1962).
Vygostky recognized that at any particular developmental level there are:
(i) certain problems that a child can solve without aid,
(ii) certain problems that a child can solve with aid, and
(iii) certain problems that a child will most likely never be able to solve at this particular stage (e.g., Vygotsky, 1962).
Much of education focuses on the second type of problem — the problems that are within reach of the child’s developmental capabilities… with a little help. Thus, in Vygotsky’s language, the problems that fall into this category are considered problems within “the zone of proximal development” (ZPD).
The ZPD is most often described as the difference between what the learner can do without help and what they can do with help. In Vygotsky’s own words: “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” (Vygostky, 1978, p86 cited in Chaiklin, 2003).
As teachers, parents and siblings, we try to provide this aid. By creating this zone of proximal development, we help our children move beyond what they can do alone.
But have you ever considered why the ZPD could be an important concept for you?
You’re probably not a child. And, it is likely that many of you don’t think about how you learn on a regular basis. In fact, you may even believe that you are not learning much on a daily basis… at least, not compared to the learning you did in school or more generally, when you were a child.
Certainly you have moved beyond the developmental stages targeted by Vygostky and have moved beyond the place and time when the ZPD may have been a relevant concept (at least in its strict Vygotskyian conceptualization; Chaiklin, 2003).
However, I argue that we are all still “learners” to some degree. And, I challenge you to think about the types of learning you might be doing on a daily basis and how the general concept of ZPD could reframe your approach to this learning.
Getting into “El Zono”
For example, I moved to Spain five years ago without any knowledge of the Spanish language. My husband, however, had been learning Spanish on and off for about ten years and thus entered with a basic ability to understand and be understood. At some point in the first year, my husband gave me the following advice: If I didn’t know the Spanish translation for a word, simply add a Spanish ending (and pronunciation) to an English word, and more often than chance, I would be understood.
This seems like easy advice — and those of you who speak Spanish (or a foreign language) may understand exactly what he meant. But when he told me this, I had not yet internalized the pattern of the language and although I could conceptually understand the steps (take a noun (e.g., investigation) and change the ending from ‘tion’ to ‘cion’, and emphasize the ending — “investigación”!), I could not do it naturally. It felt forced, awkward, and inevitably came out as a mangled Spanglish word.
But later, I remember having an “ah ha” moment where I found myself naturally “Spanishizing” English words, and remembering my husband’s earlier advice with more appreciation. His advice had just come a little too early in my learning process — it had been outside my zone of proximal development.
Can you think of any examples where you failed due to a training aid, a set of instructions, or a tip from a friend that came too early in your learning process? It happens most often when learning a new skill — such as learning to drive or learning to play golf.
In these situations, it is likely that you are already involved in an incremental learning process whereby your advancement depends on a step-by-step graded (easy to hard) learning sequence and training aids (whether animate or inanimate). However, have you ever had a well-meaning friend try to give you advice on how to improve your swing or how to do a controlled skid on the snow? And, although their instruction makes sense conceptually, you are simply unable to implement it correctly… you continue to slice the ball or you skid directly into the snow bank. Often these situations happen when the instruction we are receiving is beyond our zone of proximal development.
How Brainscape Takes Advantage of the Zone
Perhaps neither of these situations resonates with your experiences. However, many of you reading this post are also Brainscape users. If so, think about your own learning using the Brainscape software.
How do you like the flashcards? Have you ever considered (i) which words you learn first, (ii) how often the flashcards are repeated, or (iii) how many new words/concepts you learn in each session and whether this changes across time? These are all elements of a “scaffolded” learning process — whereby the presentation of material is graded to be appropriate based on your learning level. It is not simply the content of the material that changes as you advance, but the method of presentation changes as well, as you become a more advanced learner and your zone of proximal development changes.
The zone of proximal development may seem like an obvious concept, especially when thinking about child’s learning. But it’s worth considering when you’re learning something new as an adult, too. Take a minute next time you are frustrated and analyze the situation with these ideas in mind. Perhaps the stumbling block is not the problem itself, but how you are approaching the problem.
Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and instruction. In eds Kozulin, A., Gindis, B., Ageyev, V., & S. Miller, Vygotsky’s Educational Theory and Practice in Cultural Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1934/1962). The development of scientific concepts in childhood. In eds Hanfmann, E. & G. Vaker, Thought and Language. Studies in Communication (pp82 – 118). Cambridge, MA: MIT press.
 In this post, Vygotsky would likely haven taken issue with my use of training wheels and training aids in any discussion of the ZPD. In fact, he explicitly stated that “Instruction is only useful when it moves ahead of development. When it does, it impels or wakens a whole series of functions that are in a stage of maturation lying in the zone of proximal development… This is what distinguishes the instruction of the child which is directed toward his full development from instruction in specialized, technical skills, such as typing or riding a bicycle.” (Vygostky, 1962, chapter 6 section 4). In Vygotsky’s work he was interested in the cognitive development of children and the transition from the lower elemental functions that begin development in preschool (attention, perception, memory) and the later higher-order cognitive functions that are required by the sociocultural context of a particular school system (e.g., Vygostky, 1962). In particular, he put great emphasis on the acquisition of “volition” and “consciousness” in the transition to higher-order problem solving/conceptual thought (e.g., Vygostky, 1962).
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