The Zone of Proximal Development as Defined by Vygotsky

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The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the range of abilities that an individual can perform with assistance but cannot yet perform independently. These skills are called "proximal" because the individual is close to mastering them but needs more guidance and practice in order to perform these actions independently.

Vygotsky's Definition of ZPD

How do people acquire new knowledge and skills? According to one theory of learning, people learn by being guided by those who are more knowledgeable and skilled. The zone of proximal development is a concept that was created by influential psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

According to Vygotsky,

The zone of proximal development is: "The distance between the actual development 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." (Vygotsky, 1935)

Vygotsky died quite young, and much of his work was not translated from Russian until many years after his death. Once his work became more widely known, his approach and theories became much more well-known. Today, his work is very influential in the field of education.

There are a few essential factors that are critical to the success of this learning process:

  • The presence of someone with the knowledge and skills to guide the learner
  • Scaffolding, or supportive activities provided by the mentor or teacher that help guide the learner through the ZPD
  • Social interactions that allow the learner to observe and practice their skills

The "More Knowledgeable Other"

The concept of the "more knowledgeable other" is quite simple and fairly self-explanatory. The more knowledgeable other is someone who has a higher level of knowledge than the learner.

It is the more knowledgeable other who provides critical guidance and instruction during the sensitive learning period. While a child might not yet be capable of doing something on their own, they are able to perform the task with the assistance of a skilled instructor.


When children are in this zone of proximal development, providing them with the appropriate assistance and tools gives students what they need to accomplish the new task or skill. These activities, instructions, tools, and resources are known as scaffolding. Eventually, the scaffolding can be removed and the student will be able to complete the task independently.

While scaffolding is now almost synonymous with the zone of proximal development, it is not a concept that was initially introduced by Vygotsky. Instead, this component has been put forth by other researchers who have expanded upon the original theories.

Social Interaction

This more knowledgeable other is often a parent, teacher, or another adult, but this is not always the case. In many instances, peers provide valuable assistance and instruction.

During certain periods of a child's life, they may even look to peers more than they look to adults. The teen years, when forming an identity and fitting in is so critical, is just one example. Kids at this age often look to their peers for information about how to act and how to dress.

Vygotsky believed that peer interaction was an essential part of the learning process. In order for children to learn new skills, he suggested pairing more competent students with less skilled ones.

Applications of ZPD in the Classroom

It is important to realize that the zone of proximal development is a moving target. As a learner gains new skills and abilities, this zone moves progressively forward. Teachers and parents can take advantage of this by continually providing educational opportunities that are a slight stretch of a child's existing knowledge and skills.

By giving children tasks that they cannot quite do easily on their own and providing the guidance they need to accomplish it, educators can progressively advance the learning process.

For Example

A teacher in an experimental psychology course might initially provide scaffolding for students by coaching them step-by-step through their experiments. Next, the teacher might slowly remove the scaffolding by only providing outlines or brief descriptions of how to proceed. Finally, students would be expected to develop and carry out their experiments independently.

A Word From Verywell

The zone of proximal development is an important concept in the fields of both education and psychology. By understanding how the ZPD works, educators and instructional designers can be better prepared to create instruction and learning programs that maximize the tools and resources available to students.

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Article Sources
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  1. Shvarts A, Bakker A. The early history of the scaffolding metaphor: Bernstein, Luria, Vygotsky, and before. Mind, Culture, and Activity. 2019;26(1):4-23. doi:10.1080/10749039.2019.1574306

  2. Petosa RL, Smith LH. Peer mentoring for health behavior change: A systematic review. American Journal of Health Education. 2014;45(6):351-357. doi:10.1080/19325037.2014.945670

Additional Reading
  • Crain W. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 6th ed. Essex: Pearson Education Limited; 2011.