Teaching in the zone of proximal development is important because so many times, children are presented with material that is either way too challenging (and they get frustrated) or way too easy (and they lose interest). In either case, no real learning is taking place. Teaching in the zone of proximal development means that the teacher (a parent is a teacher too) is presenting material that is just challenging enough so that it is interesting, engaging, and only requires the teacher/parent to give a little nudge.
As both a former elementary school teacher and now as a parent to five inquisitive children, I have thoroughly enjoyed finding those teachable moments that are in the zone of proximal development. When the light bulb of learning dings, and I can actually see progress being made, it warms my heart.
The Zone of Proximal Development Explained
The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD, basically measures the difference between what a learner can do on his or her own and what he or she can do with guidance.
In this mindset of teaching, the learner is the center of the equation…not the curriculum, not the standards, and not the grade level expectations. It’s all about finding out where the child IS, what the child is interested in and motivated by, and then providing just a little nudge in the right direction to help him or her get to the next level. Then the cycle continues and repeats over and over again.
Scaffolding is a key component of teaching in the zone of proximal development. Much like scaffolding will support a building as it’s being built, a teacher (or parent, peer, etc.) supports the learner as he or she is learning something new. When the learner is ready to complete the task independently, the supports are removed, and he or she is able process the new information without any assistance.
Scaffolding doesn’t need to happen with just a parent or teacher, it can happen with a peer as well. This is why I love, love, love having so many children! They teach and learn from each other! And quite honestly, they seem to enjoy learning more from each other than they do from me. 🙂 *Here’s a cute (although blurry) video of Ruby and Ophelia reading together that I think is a beautiful example of teaching in the zone of proximal development with scaffolding.
The theory of teaching in the zone of proximal development and using scaffolding is credited to Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), and I wanted to talk about him for just a minute because he’s a pretty fascinating guy.
When I was getting my teaching degree, Vygotsky was mentioned in nearly every class because so much of our current philosophies of teaching are credited to him. But in Vygotsky’s lifetime, his ideas were considered quite controversial and didn’t even become widely accepted until the 1970s in western society.
He became ill from tuberculosis at the age of 25 and died from tuberculosis at the young age of 37, just when he was beginning to flesh out his ideas about children and how they learn. Truth be told, critics argue that he barely even mentions the terms “zone of proximal development” or “cultural-historical theory” (two of the things he’s widely credited with) throughout his entire six volume collection.
Vygotsky was intrigued by how we process higher cognitive functions associated with memory, attention, decision making, and language comprehension. His research focused on the three following areas:
- How we use objects to help us with memory and reasoning.
- How children acquire higher cognitive functions during development.
- How development is shaped by different social and cultural patterns of interaction.
I think some of the most interesting aspects of his theories center around children and how they learn. Here are some of the highlights:
- Internalization: By interacting with their environment and observing others in it, children learn social norms and cultural traditions that help to shape who they are.
- Children Learn Through Play: When children play in their environment, they are using their imaginations to make sense of abstract thought, which is a function of higher level thinking. They often times use objects from their environment as props (like a stick for a horse). Through playing house and other such role playing games, children practice social and cultural norms and then internalize them. (Tools of the Mind is a method of teaching preschool that uses Vygotsky’s theories as the foundation for their play centered preschool program. Read about how I encourage imaginative play with my children here.)
- Social Cognitive Theory of Learning:
- Zone of Proximal Development: The range of tasks that are within a child’s cognitive ability to learn with assistance.
- Instructional Scaffolding: The process of adjusting the amount of support based upon the needs of the child.
- Collaboration: The person doing the scaffolding can be the teacher, a parent, a sibling, a peer, or anyone who has more knowledge than the learner in the area being learned. This sort of apprenticeship style of learning occurs as the learner is completely immersed in the task with someone more knowledgeable.
- Language Acquisition: In his most influential book, Thought and Language, Vygotsky explains how children acquire language by interacting with their environment. He explains how language acquisition starts as an external social tool with the goal being communication with others. Then, during the toddler years, children develop inner speech, or self talk, that is expressed out loud and used to self regulate and self direct. Eventually, the inner speech becomes silent as children use it internally. (I talk more about this in my blog titled Oral Language Development: More Important Than You Think.)
Stephen Krashen’s Comprehensible Input
I can’t talk about the zone of proximal development without mentioning Stephen Krashen! While studying language acquisition as part of my Master’s degree program, I learned about linguist Stephen Krashen who created the input hypothesis. This hypothesis is very similar to the zone of proximal development in that it states that learners (specifically children learning a 2nd language) progress in their knowledge of language when the input is slightly more advanced than their current level. Krashen called this “i + 1” where “i” is the learner’s interlanguage and “+1” is the next stage of language acquisition. As a teacher, this helped me to see that the goal was to provide my English language learners (and all students really) with comprehensible input that was one level above their current understanding.
Teaching in the zone of proximal development, scaffolding, and keeping the input comprehensible are just fancy ways of saying to teach in a way that’s:
- Not too easy,
- Not too hard,
- But juuuuuust right!
This concept is certainly beneficial for teachers, but as parents, we actually have the time, patience, love, and devotion to really implement it with integrity. By getting down on the floor, playing with our children, thinking about where they are, thinking about how to take them to the next level, and finding ways and the time to make it happen, we are teaching them how to be independent, engaged, motivated, and on task. By stimulating their minds with content that is “just right”, they will not only be learning and developing those budding neurons at a rapid rate, they will be something even more important…they will be HAPPY!
*Check out my blog How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children to see tips for how to apply the zone of proximal development into your daily life and Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children to see how I have done it. Also, the resources I’ve created to teach my children how to read at a young age at my teacher’s pay teacher’s store.