Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) has been by defined by Vygotsky as:

“The distance between the actual developmental 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, 1978, p. 86). Lev Vygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

Two studies:

(a) Wood and Middleton (1975) – Scaffolding and the ZPD

The following study provides empirical support the both the concept of scaffolding and the ZPD.

Procedure: 4 year old children had to use a set of blocks and pegs to build a 3D model shown in a picture. Building the model was too difficult a task for a 4 year old child to complete alone.

Wood and Middleton (1975) observed how mothers interacted with their children to build the 3D model. The type of support included:

  • General encouragement e.g. ‘now you have a go.’
  • Specific instructions e.g. ‘get four big blocks.’
  • Direct demonstration e.g. showing the child how to place one block on another.

The results of the study showed that no single strategy was best for helping the child to progress. Mothers whose assistance was most effective were those who varied their strategy according to how the child was doing. When the child was doing well, they became less specific in their help. When the child started to struggle, they gave increasingly specific instructions until the child started to make progress again.

The study illustrates scaffolding, and Vygotsky’s concept of the ZPD. Scaffolding (i.e. assistance) is most effective when the support is matched to the needs of the learner. This puts them in a position to achieve success in an activity that they would previously not have been able to do alone.

Wood et al. (1976) named certain processes that aid effective scaffolding:

  • Gaining and maintaining the learner’s interest in the task.
  • Making the task simple.
  • Emphasizing certain aspects that will help with the solution.
  • Control the child’s level of frustration.
  • Demonstrate the task.

(b) Freund (1990) – Dolls House Study

Freund (1990) wanted to investigate if children learn more effectively via Piaget’s concept of discovery learning or by guided learning via the ZPD.

She asked a group of children between the ages of three and five years to help a puppet to decide which furniture should be placed in the various rooms of a dolls house. First Freund assessed what each child already understood about the placement of furniture (as a baseline measure).

Next, each child worked on a similar task, either alone (re: discovery based learning) or with their mother (re: scaffolding / guided learning). To assess what each child had learned they were each given a more complex, furniture sorting task.

The results of the study showed that children assisted by their mother performed better at the furniture sorting than the children who worked independently.

Educational Applications

‘From a Vygotskian perspective, the teacher’s role is mediating the child’s learning activity as they share knowledge through social interaction’ (Dixon-Krauss, 1996, p. 18). Scaffolding is a key feature of effective teaching and can include modeling a skill, providing hints or cues, and adapting material or activity (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

In the classroom scaffolding can can be performed with just about any task. Consider these guidelines for scaffolding instruction (Silver, 2011)

  • Assess the learner’s current knowledge and experience for the academic content.
  • Relate content to what students already understand or can do.
  • Break a task into small, more manageable tasks with opportunities for intermittent feedback.
  • Use verbal cues and prompts to assist students.

A contemporary application of Vygotsky’s theories is “reciprocal teaching”, used to improve students’ ability to learn from text. In this method, teacher and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. The teacher’s role in the process is reduced over time.

Vygotsky’s theories also feed into current interest in collaborative learning, suggesting that group members should have different levels of ability so more advanced peers can help less advanced members operate within their zone of proximal development. 

For more on scaffolding and the ZPD go here. 


Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Dixon-Krauss, L. (1996). Vygotsky in the classroom. Mediated literacy instruction and assessment. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Freund, L. S. (1990). Maternal Regulation of Children’s Problem-solving Behavior and Its Impact on Children’s Performance. Child Development, 61, 113-126.

Silver, D. (2011). Using the ‘Zone’Help Reach Every Learner. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47(sup1), 28-31.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving.Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.

Wood, D., & Middleton, D. (1975). A study of assisted problem-solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66(2), 181−191.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of Proximal Development. Retrieved from


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