Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Essence of the Meaning of “Zone of Proximal Development”


The Essence of the Meaning of “Zone of Proximal Development”

(By Victor Zaretcki; translation from Russian by Valentin Voroshilov)


Seven statements we lay down below represent in a concentrated manner the Vygotski’s idea of a zone of proximal development  (ZPD) and can be seen as a basis for constructing pedagogical (teaching and diagnostic) procedures aimed at the development of a child while teaching.

Reconstruction of the Vygotski’s view and projecting it onto the pedagogical application of a zone of proximal development principle leads to the following statements:
1. The first assignment (problem) which a child cannot solve on his/her own represents the boundary between a zone of actual development and a zone of proximal development. It does not make a difference if this is happening under natural circumstances or during the artificial procedure to diagnose the level of child development.
2. When a child cannot solve a problem he/she is in a problematic situation (the goal of a teacher is creating a sequence of problematic situations and guiding students through them).
3. When in a problematic situation, a child solves a problem by communicating with an adult (expert).
4. From this point of view child development is a process during which a child undergoes a transition from a mutual work with an adult solving together difficult problems to being able to solve problems independently from adults. The fact this transition happens is also a measure of how effective the help of the adult was: if today a child can alone solve problems which he/she could solve before only with a help from adult, that means the help was effective. If the transition did not happen, that means the adult should think again about the teaching methods he/she uses.
5. It is clear that the region of the zone within which development is growing has another boundary; beyond that boundary lay the problems which a child cannot solve even with the help from an adult. We see that the zone of proximal development is a region having to limits: an upper limit beyond which lay problems too difficult for a child even with a helping adult; and a lower limit beyond which lay problems the child can do without an adult.
6. A zone of proximal development represents an assembly of specific actions; a child can understand what they mean and how they work but cannot implement without help; i.e. this is a zone within which a child acts meaningfully but with a help of an adult. If a child cannot understand an adult and cannot act in a meaningful manner there is no communication and there is no real mutual work of a child and an adult.
7. Finally, we should mention that Vygotski himself though of the zone of proximal development as applicable beyond just intellectual skills of a person.

The next area of discussion can be related to two questions:
1. What kind of a help can and should be used by an adult helping a child in a problematic situation.
2. A look at contemporary teaching methods and techniques from the Vygotski’s point of view on a zone of proximal development.

For the deeper view on the applications of the Vygotski's ideas to designing teaching and learning practices, please, read 

P.S. The above is the direct translation of the piece which have been written about 5 years ago.
My personal view on ZPD is very similar. 
A student has entered ZPD when:
1. he or she does NOT perform a TASK but has to solve a problem (very briefly: " task" - when one knows what and how to do to achieve the goal; "a problem" - when one does not know how to achieve the goal (at least in full); more on this difference here, and here and here; I hope some day in the future I will finally write one large paper on ZPD).
2. he or she has the most of knowledge and skills and experience to understand the solution if it would have been presented by a teacher;
3. he or she can construct the solution with the guidance from a teacher within a reasonable time and with a reasonable effort from the student, and the help of a teacher should not be negligible and dominating.
Since the solution has to be constructed, a student most probably will be making mistakes.
True (actual, full, complete) learning cannot happen without making mistakes.
Mistakes are inevitable and unavoidable.
There is no shame in making a mistake.
There is shame, though, in insisting that you didn't, when even you already know that you did.
A culture where mistake are being punished cannot succeed in Science, Technologies, Engineering, and Mathematics (and intellectually in general; but, keep in mind, that "grading" is not necessary "punishment").
Any assessment can be described by a set of parameters, including "difficulty" or "hardness". Only specific values of this parameter (harder than "too easy", but easier than "too hard") would place the assignment into ZPD of a student.
This is just a fact, that the same assignments (e.g. physics problems) may be too easy for some students and too difficult for other students. In both cases the learning is not happening, because a student did not have to learn anything, or could not learn anything. Hence, when designing teaching practice, a teacher has to manage the difficulty of the assignments - for all students - making assignment not too easy and not too hard, i.e. placing them in ZPD of the students. How to do it, and what do to if that is not a case is a completely different conversation. 
Just do not forget that teachers also have their own Zone of Proximal Development (even though, you will not find this statement anywhere else) 


Thank you for visiting,
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
Education Advancement Professionals

To learn more about my professional experience:
The Essentials of Teaching Science

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