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  • Writer's pictureMegan Humburg

Designing for Who Your Students CAN Be: The 'Zone of Proximal Development'

Concept: The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)


TLDR: Don’t judge your students and their abilities based only on what they can do without help – look at what their potential is for developing new skills in the future by assessing what they can do with your support, the support of peers, and helpful tools.

 
“Over a decade even the profoundest thinkers never questioned the assumption: they never entertained the notion that what children can do with assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone” - Lev Vygotsky, 1978

The ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) is one of my favorite ideas to teach to soon-to-be teachers, because it highlights a belief that many teachers know already in their hearts: there is no limit to the potential of your students to learn and grow.


Back in the early 1900s, when IQ tests were popular, many people believed that intelligence was a fixed trait: students were either smart and capable, or they weren’t. We know now how foolish that is, thanks in part to the writings of Vygotsky, who championed this idea that what learners can do with help is more useful for understanding their potential than some static score on an IQ test.


So what is the ZPD, and why does it matter for teachers?


The ZPD is a concept that describes the range of a learner’s current and future abilities. It is the distance between what a student can do right now, on their own, and what development is possible with the support of others. The idea here is that the things students need help with today are the skills that they will soon be able to master on their own, so we need to assess both ends of the spectrum to get a good picture of our students’ abilities.


When you teach with the ZPD in mind, you are designing activities that will push students towards the edge of their ZPDs, towards new milestones and breakthroughs in the skills that they possess.


We can think of teaching in the ZPD as supporting our students as they climb a mountain. Students may be able to scale a few rocks by themselves, but eventually they’ll hit a point where they need the help of tools, like ropes and harnesses. They’ll also reach a point where they could use a more skilled mountain climber to show them some effective ways to climb higher. You also wouldn’t expect a student who has just begun learning how to climb to scale the whole mountain in one day. The ZPD helps us think about how to challenge learners without overwhelming them, and to think about each student’s skills as a continuum rather than a static score.


Ask yourself: What sorts of tools do my students need to show me how high they can climb? What parts of the mountain are within their reach, and what parts will they need help climbing?

The idea of the ZPD pushes back against traditional IQ tests, which claim that what you can do alone equals how smart and capable you are.


When we use the ZPD to guide our teaching, we say “No, intelligence isn’t just about what my students can do by themselves, alone in a room. It’s about what their potential is, when they can collaborate with others and have the resources they need to succeed.”


Just like you wouldn’t assess a mountain climber’s skill without giving them ropes and harnesses, we shouldn’t be assessing our students’ abilities without giving them opportunities to show us what they can do with additional support. Sure, some mountains can be scaled without ropes, but looking at what a person can do alone only shows us one piece of a much larger set of skills.


The ZPD challenges us by asking: What if we cared as much about a child’s potential for growth as we did about their current score on a test?

The ZPD is also constantly changing – our potential level of development shifts higher as we learn more, so we can’t be pinned down to a particular IQ – what we need help with now, we will be able to do independently in the future, and the things that feel impossible now we will someday be able to achieve with support.


TLDR: Don’t judge your students and their abilities based only on what they can do without help – look at what their potential is for developing new skills in the future by assessing what they can do with your support, the support of peers, and helpful tools.

 

Q&A:

How do I assess my students’ ZPDs?

By using collaborative activities & giving students supports on tests & activities

  • An exam or activity that a student completes by themselves shows their actual / current level of development

  • An exam or activity that they complete with a peer (or with guiding prompts from you, or with tools like textbooks, videos, models) shows you what they can do when they have more support – this shows you their potential level of development and what skills they may be able to master in the future

 

Additional resources:


Reviewed by: Morgan Vickery


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