Psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) in the 1930s to describe the sweet spot where instruction is most beneficial for each student – just beyond his or her current level of independent capability. You can think of the ZPD as the difference between what a child can do independently and what he or she is capable of doing with targeted assistance (scaffolding).
Instruction focused within each student’s ZPD is not too difficult or too easy, but just challenging enough to help him or her develop new skills by building on those that have already been established. Students are most receptive to instruction within their ZPD because it represents the next logical step in their ongoing skill development. In contrast, without reliable information on students’ constantly evolving ZPDs, it is difficult to identify who is ready for more challenging material and who needs additional assistance.
Understanding how to locate and use each student’s ZPD can help educators plan more targeted instruction for the whole class, small groups, and individuals. Ultimately, aligning classroom teaching strategies to students’ ZPDs can help educators more effectively guide all students in their early childhood learning.
The common thread between formative assessment practices and the practice of identifying and teaching within the ZPD is the idea that in order for teaching and learning to be effective, instruction should focus on skills and knowledge that are attainable for students (not too easy, not too difficult, but just right). With constant feedback, or scaffolding, we know that students’ learning and understanding can continue to develop at an appropriate pace.
If you would like more information on the ZPD and how to locate it for your classroom or school, feel free to contact us at your convenience.