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MSPnet Blog: “Buzzwords: The Zone of Proximal Development”

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posted September 4, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

I have been reading lots of reports and blog posts about personalization and related ideas.  There is an encouraging diversity of opinions about what “personalized” or “comptence” or “mastery” might mean, and how they (it) should look in the classroom.  One term that keeps cropping up is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, which I will abbreviate hereafter as “ZPD,” the way people do these days.  The frequency, not to say the faddishness, of the term has caught my attention ( a new addition to my little collection of   terms from what I like to call “folk ed psychology” — which could serve as the basis of an interesting study that I, alas, am likely never to get around to).

Lev Vygotsky, the “Mozart of psychology,” was particularly interested in the psychology of learning and teaching, working to elaborate a theoretical framework that was consistent with Marx’s view of society and human nature. I am not competent to provide a resumé of Marx’s thought, but an excerpt from Erich Fromme’s account Marx’s concept of man may serve here:

Man’s potential, for Marx, is a given potential; man is, as it were, the human raw material which, as such, cannot be changed, just as the brain structure has remained the same since the dawn of history. Yet, man does change in the course of history; he develops himself; he transforms himself, he is the product of history; since he makes his history, he is his own product. History is the history of man’s self-realization…For Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel, as well as for Marx, man is alive only inasmuch as he is productive, inasmuch as he grasps the world outside of himself in the act of expressing his own specific human powers, and of grasping the world with these powers….Inasmuch as man is not productive…he is dead. In this productive process, man realizes his own essence…..

Vygotsky was interested in the ways that people (especially children, but not only they) participate in this process, which is not only inwardly driven but shaped by one’s environment, above all the social or cultural environment.  As Holbrook Mahn writes, “Qualitative leaps in the development of personality, identity, and awareness of self, as the child begins to think conceptually and to understand systems — social, linguistic, cultural, logical, and emotional — were of particular interest to him.”  Vygotsky worked from a theory of human mental/psychological development which posited that people pass through stages, each of which is characterized by the development and inhabiting of new capabilities for purposive action.   Each stage is “prepared” by the child’s growth,which in essential ways is unified with her interaction with and awareness of her social/cultural environment — the individual and the social being in an important way a unified system (I think this is what Dewey would call a transactional relationship).  Such a “rhythm” of stability bounded by transformational crisis is reflected in Thomas Kuhn’s distinction of “scientific revolution” vs “normal science.”  The crisis, on Vygotsky’s view, contributes to personality formation.

It is from this point of view that I have been reading various recent statements, blog posts, and advertisements for educational technology, school reform, and other products and projects.  For example, from a post by Courtney Belolan on

The Zone of Proximal Development is the sweet spot of education; this is where meaningful learning happens…The ZPD is at the core of performance-based learning, individualized learning, and customized learning….a student is in the ZPD when they still need support from a teacher or a peer in order to do or understand something new. Once they no longer need teacher or peer support, they are out of the ZPD for that particular skill or understanding.

Here’s something from the Kars4Kids website, which offers a lot of advice to parents and educators:

The idea is that wherever a child is in his or her learning, there is a range of learning that is within reach, but not yet attained. This is where the child can get to with a nudge from a teacher that sees the child as he or she really is at a given moment in time, rather than where he or she is supposed to be according to external guidelines set by say, the Board of Education…. We learn through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development to always see a child as something that is never static, as someone that can always learn and grow and move forward.

And from Edsurge:


“It’s the Goldilocks of cognitive challenge for students—you don’t want it too hot, you don’t want it too cold, you want it just right,” explains [John] Reyes [director of educational technology for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles]. “If we’re able to scaffold through prior knowledge, the structure of the activity and the timeframe, then we’re able to hit the cognitive sweet spot.”

Reyes isn’t the only one to raise the connection between ZPD and personalized learning—the term seemed to resonate with teachers during a recent iNACOL survey and multiple attendees at the Los Angeles EdSurge Tech Leaders Circle mentioned it conversations as they shared about what personalized learning means for them.

Digital personal learning experiences rely on technology tools that keep students engaged by meeting them in their ZPD. These tools can also provide teachers with valuable insights into the different needs of all students, and can loosen up teacher time, allowing for meaningful 1:1 conference time with students.

In commenting on current notions of ZPD, Seth Chaiklin writes:

The common conception of the zone of proximal development supports or inspires a vision of educational perfection, in which the insightful (or lucky) teacher is able to help a child master, effortlessly and joyfully, whatever subject matter is on the day’s program. With this kind of conception, a reader is likely to expect that a chapter about the zone of proximal development and instruction will explain (a) how to identify a child’s zone of proximal development for each learning task, (b) how to teach in a way that will be sure to engage the zone of proximal development, which (c) in a smooth and joyful way will significantly accelerate learning.

But the ZPD is about development, not learning of specific content or skills. Chaiklin:

Vygotsky distinguishes instruction aimed “toward [the child’s] full development from instruction in specialized, technical skills such as typing or riding a bicycle” . In short, zone of proximal development is not concerned with the development of skill of any particular task, but must be related to development.

Chaiklin also points out that popular descriptions (and I would add, commercialization) of the ZPD, place a heavy emphasis (as in the EdSurge quotation above) on the role of the ‘more skilled other,’ which might be peers, or teachers, or digital environment.  This very often is expressed in terms of a technical method:  Assess Johnny, find out his ZPD, then apply the correct tool/intervention to move him successfully through the lesson.  But, as the literature on ZPD makes clear, identifying someone’s ZPD is not a trivial task, and it’s not done in relation to specific skills in math, say, vs. science or literature.  As Chaiklin says,

the zone of proximal development is not simply a way to refer to development through assistance by a more competent other. This assistance is meaningful only in relation to maturing functions needed for transition to the next age period.

In a sense, a learner’s ZPD is determined by an inquiry, based upon a developmental theory which frames the educator’s examination of the child (always remembering that we are speaking of the child-in-context).  To that extent, Courtney Belolan’s advocacy of diagnosis is on to something, with an important caveat:  the ZPD is highly particular to the child at his/her current stage of cognitive development, but this is not the same as his/her current conceptual issues with the division of fractions.  Chaiklin again:

It seems more appropriate to use the term zone of proximal development to refer to the phenomenon that Vygotsky was writing about, and find other terms (e.g., assisted instruction, scaffolding) to refer to practices like teaching a specific subject- matter concept, skill, and so forth.This is not to deny the meaningfulness of other investigations (e.g., joint problem solving, dynamic assessment of intellectual capabilities), only to indicate that there is no additional scientific value to refer to this as zone of proximal development


The reason I think this point is important is that terms like ZPD can be invoked to lend “cultural authority” to techniques or products which have no more than a tangential relationship to the concept that Vygotsky identified, and that several generations of scholars have tried to understand and critique.   While in some cases, a fuzzy notion like the folk-simplification of ZPD will serve as a useful “rule of thumb” tool for a teacher trying to listen to student thinking, in other cases it can open the door to quite curious developments.  From the Edsurge piece cited above, for example:

Over the past few years, Peskay [Matthew Peskay, Chief of Innovation and Technology at KIPP LA Schools] explains that use of the term ZPD has decreased and there has been an uptick on Angela Duckworth’s ideas on grit and Carol Dweck’s beliefs about growth mindset. But he says they’re all related. “I could see it shift over time. In a few years, it might be the zone of grit,” he speculates.

The bottom line is, when someone starts talking about ZPD, stop and ask:  What’s going on here?


Note:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPNet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.