The zone of proximal development is a key part of an educational theory that emphasizes the process of childhood learning through the guidance of a teacher or other capable adult. This theory breaks down all knowledge into three simple areas: the information that a student knows and things he or she can already do alone, tasks and information that are well beyond the scope of what the student can do, and those things a student could do or learn with the assistance of a teacher. The zone of proximal development is this third area, which consists of the information and tasks a student can achieve with help from a teacher or knowledgeable adult.
As an educational concept, the zone of proximal development was conceived and championed initially by a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky. He developed this concept in an effort to decrease focus on standardized, goal-oriented testing in favor of testing that focuses on problem solving involving problems the student can complete alone and some that require help from a teacher. The zone of proximal development can effectively be used in a number of different teaching styles and pedagogies. It typically relies on a teacher as a facilitator of learning, who works with a student to develop understanding of increasingly complex tasks.
A simple example of the zone of proximal development in relation to how children learn would be the kind of math problem a child could solve at a certain level. If a student understood basic mathematical functions, such as addition and multiplication, then he or she should be able to solve a simple problem using these functions without assistance from a teacher. Within the zone of proximal development could be problems that involve these functions in multiple steps or a simple problem that replaces numbers with variables. Beyond this zone, however, would be complex problems that use trigonometry and different mathematical concepts the student has not begun to learn.
The zone of proximal development can be used by teachers to better understand how to challenge students and to know what kinds of help to provide. Once a student solves enough problems with help from a teacher, those kinds of problems should move into the realm of tasks the student can complete without help. At this point, the zone of proximal development moves outward and some of the tasks or information that were previously unreachable become within the student’s reach with the help of a teacher. This process of building learning for a student by taking away support for problems as they become easier, and providing new support for harder problems, is commonly known as “scaffolding.”