Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development is based on the idea that development is defined both by what a child can do independently and by what the child can do when assisted by an adult or more competent peer (Daniels, 1995; Wertsch, 1991). Knowing both levels of Vygotsky’s zone is useful for teachers, for these levels indicate where the child is at a given moment as well as where the child is going. The zone of proximal development has several implications for teaching in the classroom.
According to Vygotsky, for the curriculum to be developmentally appropriate, the teacher must plan activities that encompass not only what children are capable of doing on their own but what they can learn with the help of others (Karpov & Haywood, 1998).
Vygotsky’s theory does not mean that anything can be taught to any child. Only instruction and activities that fall within the zone promote development. For example, if a child cannot identify the sounds in a word even after many prompts, the child may not benefit immediately from instruction in this skill. Practice of previously known skills and introduction of concepts that are too difficult and complex have little positive impact. Teachers can use information about both levels of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in organizing classroom activities in the following ways:
- Instruction can be planned to provide practice in the zone of proximal development for individual children or for groups of children. For example, hints and prompts that helped children during the assessment could form the basis of instructional activities.
- Cooperative learning activities can be planned with groups of children at different levels who can help each other learn.
- Scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976) is a tactic for helping the child in his or her zone of proximal development in which the adult provides hints and prompts at different levels. In scaffolding, the adult does not simplify the task, but the role of the learner is simplified “through the graduated intervention of the teacher” (Greenfield, 1984, p. 119).
For example, a child might be shown pennies to represent each sound in a word (e.g., three pennies for the three sounds in “man”). To master this word, the child might be asked to place a penny on the table to show each sound in a word, and finally the child might identify the sounds without the pennies. When the adult provides the child with pennies, the adult provides a scaffold to help the child move from assisted to unassisted success at the task (Spector, 1992). In a high school laboratory science class, a teacher might provide scaffolding by first giving students detailed guides to carrying out experiments, then giving them brief outlines that they might use to structure experiments, and finally asking them to set up experiments entirely on their own.