Goldilocks and the zone of proximal development

This post originally appeared on a different forum (and it’s meant to be funny).

Occasionally, our thoughts inevitably turn towards Lev Vygotsky and his original thinking around the Zone of Proximal Development. The Zone of Proximal Development – which, for reasons of clarity and meaningfulness, is usually simply shortened to the snappier ‘ZPD’ – is a notion at the heart of educational theory. Whether you are a social constructivist – whatever that is – or not, Vygotsky’s definition will be in the forefront of your mind when planning your lessons. “The zone of proximal development,” said Vygotsky, “defines functions that have not matured yet, but are in a process of maturing, that will mature tomorrow, that are currently in an embryonic state; these functions could be called the buds of development, the flowers of development, rather than the fruits of development, that is, what is only just maturing.”

The radical notion that Vygotsky had established was that we shouldn’t ask students to do things that they find impossible and neither should we ask them to do things that they can already do and find really easy. Neither of these will help the student to learn new things. Instead, we should ask them to do things that are ‘just right’; at exactly approximately the right level for them to learn.

The idea can be conveniently summarised by this diagram:

zone of optimal porridge temperature

The Zone of Optimal Porridge Temperature (ZOPT) is the region where the porridge may just about be eaten with sufficient blowing.

Sorry, I meant this diagram:

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the region where the learner can just about complete the task with sufficient guidance.

As everyone knows, prior to the 1930s teachers routinely asked students to complete tasks that the students found impossible or else routinely required them to do lots of activities that they found far too easy. It was Vygotsky’s insight that enabled us to put a stop to this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, Vygotsky died before he was able to add the necessary bloodfilled flesh to the skeletal outline of his theory. So that has largely been left to others. However, he did have sufficient time to elucidate a few other useful ideas. For instance, one of Vygotsky’s insights was that if you are sitting next to someone who knows how to do something then they might be able to help you to learn how to do it too. Where such abilities are complementary in two individuals then together they may be able to complete a task that neither of them could complete alone.

There is, of course, one slight problem with Vygotsky’s big idea. We now know that in certain fields it is worth practising past the point of mastery. For example, memorising your times-tables is probably a worthwhile activity to boost future maths performance. In order to this this, students will actually need to practise things that they can already do. But that’s just a small thing.

In short, Vygotsky’s notion of the Zone of Proximal Development is an excellent guide or heuristic for all educational experiences apart from the ones where it doesn’t really work.


3 thoughts on “Goldilocks and the zone of proximal development

  1. Pingback: How people really learn | Filling the pail

  2. Miss Friday says:

    I think you’ve put Vygotsky exactly where he ought to be! Maybe a few of the other High Priests of the Church of Later Day Educationalists should be added to the pile.

    BTW, practicing beyond mastery is a good idea in music too. Because if I catch you writing the notes and/or fingerings on your orchestra music, I’ll rip it up in front of you and the class. I’m mean like that. 😉

  3. Peter Steidinger says:

    “We now know that in certain fields it is worth practising past the point of mastery.”
    True, but not a point against Vygotsky, as ZPD is about how new knowledge (and following the learning development) is obtained. Practising is something totally different.

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