The zone of proximal development is a concept created by seminal psychologist Lev Vygotsky. According to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development "is the distance between the actual development 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) In other words, it is the range of abilities that a person can perform with assistance, but cannot yet perform independently.
Vygotsky believed that peer interaction was an essential part of the learning process. In order for children to learn new skills, he suggested pairing more competent students with less skilled ones. When a student is in this zone of proximal development, providing them with the appropriate assistance and tools, which he referred to as scaffolding, gives the student what they need to accomplish the new task or skill. Eventually, the scaffolding can be removed and the student will be able to complete the task independently.
It is important to realize that the zone of proximal development is a moving target. As a learner gains new skills and abilities, this zone moves progressively forward.
For example, a teacher in an experimental psychology course might initially provide scaffolding for students by coaching them step-by-step through their experiments. Next, teacher might slowly remove the scaffolding by only providing outlines or brief descriptions of how to proceed. Finally, students would be expected to develop and carry out their experiments independently.
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Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.