Zone of Proximal Development

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Editor: Jacqueline L. Longe
Date: 2016
The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology
From: The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology(Vol. 2. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 1
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development is a concept that was introduced as a part of sociocultural theory developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) that pertains to cognitive development. It refers specifically to the stage in learning when one must perform a new task and cannot do so without guidance.

Sociocultural theory focuses on the impact of culture, socialization, and language on what and how people learn. According to Vygotsky, learning is a joint effort achieved through social interaction. In order to encourage skill development, a more knowledgeable individual must guide a learner through stages of cognitive development. Most often encountered in developmental or educational psychology, the concept of zone of proximal development (ZPD) has provided a fundamental outlook that can be used to understand the dynamic relationship that exists between the mind in progress and its surrounding environment.

Although ZPD may be present at any stage in life during which an individual is learning a new skill, the concept predominantly pertains to early childhood development. ZPD is expressed most directly when natural curiosity and social stimuli have provided children with the motivation to learn a new skill that is just beyond their current comprehension level. When children reach this point, a parent or other adult plays a vital role in supporting their cognitive development, for if the immediate challenge is not overcome, they will be incapable of moving on to subsequent challenges and as a result will experience a standstill in cognitive development. The levels of comprehension and the support that must be provided as children continually face more complex challenges is metaphorically referred to as scaffolding.

ZPD is most important during the early stages of development because it is during these first encounters with learning that we develop the skills needed to eventually take learning into our own hands. The manner in which our initial curiosities and challenges are addressed becomes the manner in which we come to address the lifelong curiosities and challenges that arise.

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—In psychology, a term that describes the support offered to children as they acquire comprehension and skills.

ZPD has contributed to the development of dynamic tests that are used to measure children's potential for learning rather than represent the education received up to the point that they are taking the test. These tests have been extremely useful in helping schools to understand how to move forward in providing appropriate education for students experiencing difficulty.

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International Centre for Educators’ Learning Styles. “Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development.” (accessed July 17, 2015).

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American Psychological Association, 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC, 20002, (202) 336-5500, (800) 374-2721, .

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3631000800