Problems with the ‘zone of proximal development’

It’s hard to have a discussion about learning without someone sooner or later chipping in with the Russian developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) to support their position. This might, in part, be because Vygotsky is one of the very few theorists covered in many teachers’ training, but it’s also because it feels intuitively right.

Briefly, most people use ZPD to suggest that there is a ‘Goldilocks Effect’ where the level of challenge for a child is ‘just right. If work is too easy, it’s argued, then no learning will take place, and if it’s too hard, then it will be inaccessible and students will become frustrated. Vygotsky himself describes ZPD 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).

But, as Seth Chaiklin says in this paper, “popularity has its price”:

Wertsch (1984) suggested that if this theoretical construct was not elaborated further, then there was a risk that “it will be used loosely and indiscriminately, thereby becoming so amorphous that it loses all explanatory power” (p. 7). Mercer and Fisher (1992) believe that “there is a danger that the term is used as little more than a fashionable alternative to Piagetian terminology or the concept of IQ for describing individual differences in attainment or potential” (p. 342). Palinscar (1998) suggests that in the context of research about the negotiated nature of teaching and learning it is “probably one of the most used and least understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literature” (p. 370). (Chaiklin p. 2)

Clearly, there’s a common sense aspect appeal. It stands to reason that a novice will be able to achieve more if helped by an expert, and it also follows that the experience of working in collaboration with an expert might result in the novice being able to replicate a process independently. But, Chaiklin identifies three rarely articulated assumptions which underlie this assumption:

  1. The generality assumption: that there is a ZPD for learning every different kind of subject matter
  2. The assistance assumption: that learning is dependent on support from an expert
  3. The potential assumption: that teaching in the ZPD will result in easy or effortless learning.

This understanding of ZPD, “supports or inspires a vision of educational perfection, in which the insightful (or lucky) teacher is able to help a child master, effortlessly and joyfully, whatever subject matter is on the day’s program.” This might lead teachers to believe that it is possible to identify a child’s zone of proximal development for each learning task, discover how to teach in a way that will be sure to engage the zone of proximal development so that learning will significantly accelerate in a smooth and joyful way. This is a tempting proposition but one that is unsupported by Evidence of even by Vygotsky’s own writings.

In order to understand the problems with the way ZPD is applied in educational contexts we need to critique each of the three assumptions in turn.

The generality assumption

If Vygotsky had intended ZPD to apply to all learning situations, why didn’t he call his theory the ‘zone of proximal learning’? Let’s not forget that Vygotsky was primarily concerned with child development and he developed the concept to help consider the development of children in general rather than to any or all particular skills or domains of knowledge. Vygotsky believed, like Piaget, that learning occurred in clearly defined developmental stages. When a child moved from stage to another she would acquire new “psychological processes” which make more advanced learning possible. We can think of his theory like this: learning within one stage of development which leads to children access a new stage and thus more advanced learning. And so on until maturity. In this worldview, there are blurred edges between different developmental zones and that if learning situations are focussed correctly, children can be assisted in moving from one developmental stage to the next. As I explained in this post, this sort of model of child development is now considered to be wrong. 

The assistance assumption

Vygotsky was interested in exploring the well-known ‘fact’ that “with collaboration, direction, or some kind of help the child is always able to do more and solve more difficult tasks than he can independently” (Vygotsky, 1934/1987, p. 209). This may be true, but he saw the more important question as being why. Why is it that collaboration and direction help move children to independent performance. More recent research into practice and expertise indicates that this has something to do with children establishing mental representations or models of what independent performance looks like. If you just watch someone else perform a task then often you are left with very little idea about the processes they went through to achieve success. But, if you collaborate with, or receive direction from an expert then they share their own mental representation with you and explain their thought processes with you. Once we know that establishing effective mental representations is they key, then we can start to see how this might be achieved without requiring one-to-one assistance.

The potential assumption

It’s quite clear from Vygotsky’s own writings that learning within a ZPD must be enjoyable – he even discusses how losing a race might be an important developmental event. More importantly though, he did not think that potential was a property of the child, instead he thought of it as a property of the learning situation which might – or might not – contain the potential to move a children from one developmental stage to the next. What we can infer from this is that it would be a mistake to believe that there is a ‘sweet spot’ in every child which teachers need to discover and then target instruction. Instead, Vygotsky saw learning within the ZPD as instruction in a domain which was likely to advance a child’s psychological development.

With all this in mind we can perhaps conclude that bandying about the term ZPD is unhelpfully vague and imprecise. Learning and development are obviously closely linked but they’re not synonymous. At one level we can make claims such as ‘all learning is development’ or ‘all development requires learning’ but then we’re in danger of using circular logic. These statements are meaninglessly tautological.

I have to thank Dylan Wiliam put putting me on to the Chaiklin article, and  helping me formulate my objections to the way ZPD is used in education debate. In our email exchange he sums up the situation in typically pithy and uncompromising style:

The trouble is that most people who use the term ZPD apply it to learning, not development. In other words, they think that if a child cannot add fractions on their own, but can do with the help of a higher-achieving peer, they are somehow working in the ZPD. They are not. If anything, they are working in their zone of proximal learning, which when you think about it, is a fairly vacuous notion, since the purpose of all education is to help children do things they couldn’t do. And this is why I claim that almost everyone who uses the term ZPD is (a) using it in a different sense from Vygotsky, and (b) talking bollocks because they are making something simple sound complicated and academic.

22 Responses to Problems with the ‘zone of proximal development’

  1. Ok – so I take the hit about making a casual inappropriation of the term ZPD the other day! However, there is still some value, surely, in continuing to believe in a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of work which is not too hard and not too easy, and which enables the most fruitful progression…? What would be an appropriate label which we could use for describing this ‘zone’?

  2. Fantastic. I managed to get through a PGCE without these famous people being mentioned. Years later I felt guilty for not knowing too much about them (and hearing the words “as we all know” on training days etc)
    Now the guilt is gone.

  3. pedroinnovo says:

    In support of your thoughts a blog post written by Lois Holzman, “It’s a ZPD, not a ZPL”:

  4. Steve says:

    ZPD, or whatever name you give it, makes sense in classroom second language acquisition, whether you believe in a skill-acquisition or natural acquisition model. In either case, teachers like to present language just above the current level of learning, e.g. in a new text you don’t want to see too many new words or syntactic structures. This allows previous material to be retrieved and embedded in long-term memory and for range of language to be extended. Definitely a case of the common sense you mentioned.

    • David Didau says:

      Yep. It’s popular because it makes sense. But to refer you back to Wiliam’s comment, using ZPD to describe this stuff is a) not what Vygotsky meant and b) bollocks 🙂

  5. Derek Hopper says:

    Vygotsky’s ZPD was used in my teacher training as a theoretical basis for the commonsense idea that student work needs to be at the right level, too hard and they will give up, too easy and there is little point. Obviously a simplification and misappropriation of his more complex ideas which are worth further investigation.

  6. jameswilding says:

    Deeply though provoking post, in danger of taking us to the nanoparticulate level of what works in the learning environment. There are so many times when you don’t need to ZPD – learners can make the hyperspace jump without having the stepping stones in place.
    What I take from the work of Neil McKay and others is that children of diverse abilities can make their destination in the same time, so long as we can ignore how they got there and don’t point out the missing steps. This the slow or fast train to Birmingham analogy; did you need to stop along the way. I am working on some Neuro developmental delay stuff that affects children at present; highly intelligent children won’t be able to use any scaffold you put in their way, if physiologically you don’t know they can’t hear the full range of the auditory spectrum (because they have not lost the moro reflex. Amazing for these children is that they will take into working memory and handle vision and auditory management stuff that most of us handle automatically, and as a consequence, whether it be Vigotsky or his bipole Piaget or whoever, their theories fail at the new hurdle they never knew.
    Those with NDD might not benefit from either Analytical or Synthetic phonics – not the point of the article but more broadly true – they have to use conscious memory process to get these into the subconscious in other ways.
    CPD in schools and colleges needs to cover all of this stuff; us science teachers know the value of using Vigotsky as a route through, modeling language and concepts carefully, because beyond the next logical step is completely blind.

  7. As comments seem quiet on this, and as I’m in a quibbly mood this week, I’ve got a couple of other concerns/confusions about this post now that I’ve let it sink in.

    Please ask Professor Wiliam – how does he differentiate between ‘development’ and ‘learning’? If development means biological maturation, then the whole ZPD idea is nonsensical. A zone for the most fertile biological development…? How are we meant to make any use of that?! Anything else is surely learning? Indeed, the popularly referred to ‘scaffolding’ idea linked to this – carefully described in this post without the use of that term can surely only have relevance in the field of learning?

    Furthermore – if I wanted to be really defensive – I could say that maybe ZPD has become a shorthand way of referring to any situation where there is a most fertile area between two overlapping yet contrasting extremes. Language does evolve like this – ‘hoovers’ becoming a shorthand for any vacuum cleaners for example, and you know this very well as an English specialist David.

    Having said that, I do try to be respectful of the proper meanings of terms, and find the way that ‘meme’ has moved from the Dawkinsian meaning of “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” to meaning an internet picture with a caption attached to it as quite appalling. So I will defer if there is a serious conceptual differentiation to be made here.

    However, I’m not entirely sure that ZPD has been twisted quite so badly after all, and wonder whether indeed yourself and Professor Wiliam might be trying to refine its meaning in a pedantic way that suits a purpose… 😉

    • teachwell says:

      Education theories are not commandments written on tablets of stone and sent down a mountain, even if they are treated that way by some in education.

      Even if both of them are being pedantic, it doesn’t actually constitute a refutation of any of the points made. Neither does insinuating they have a “purpose” it suits.

  8. […] Det finns två typer av cookies; de temporära som endast existerar under den session du har med sajten och de permanenta som lagras på din hårddisk, de man normalt sett förknippar med cookies. Problems with the ‘zone of proximal development’ […]

  9. Rita Ndagire Kizito says:

    Thank you for this. I think that just because a construct was ‘developed’ for a different context and a different purpose does not mean we cannot re-envision it for a different purpose and context. We do this all the time: we borrow theories and constructs across disciplines and learning areas. But you do make a useful suggestion- that one should critically analyse the original assumptions and address these in the ‘re-purposing’ between (for example), learning and development. Perhaps it is time for us to really revisit Vygotsy’s work. The texts that we read today are actually interpretations of his work.

    • David Didau says:

      I’d suggest there are more profitable ways to spend our time.

      • And here I say that I totally agree with the first part of what you said Rita – it summarises what I was wanting to say but better – and I also totally agree with David: I’m not interested in Vygotsky’s theories at this point in time – simply how we can take the concept which he introduced of an overlapping ‘Goldilock’s Zone’ fruitfully into other areas, rather than keeping on insisting on binary either/ors. If we need to revise labels, fair enough, but society tends to do that naturally, however we wish to control things, and I suspect that has happened with ZPD.

  10. […] World Café Method. Problems with the ‘zone of proximal development’ […]

  11. In its historical context, ZPD was a challenge to the idea that learning was a private, independent activity. In some respects, ZPD does indeed appear to be common sense and that everyone accepts the idea that learning takes place in social situations and that what exists in our mind as ‘the thing learned’ is derived from the social circumstances of relationships with teachers and peers. All obvious. However, most assessment is the opposite. It’s individual. Knowledge itself is seen not just as ‘the thing learned’ but ‘the thing learned by a single person’.
    There is a gap then between how we learn (if ZPD in its most obvious meaning is true) and how we think of knowledge. In extreme shorthand it’s represented by the difference between those panel games (or parts of panel games) where the individual is scored (and must not confer) and where the pair or group are allowed to confer.

    There is the further question raised by ZPD about who should be the source of proximal development but I can see that isn’t what DD has raised here.

  12. Matt Perks says:

    I read the Chaiklin chapter a few years ago but that was really useful to re-read after this blog – thank you. Guilty as charged, I think! I only use Piaget and Vygotsky to help my trainee teachers think in terms of children having mental models based on existing understanding, that influence their response to teaching, and help to explain why even very clear explanations often don’t stick. I wrote more about this a while back after we were talking about this over a curry with Shaun Allison and some others from the DHS TeachMeet
    However, I’ve definitely been conflating development and learning in this area so thanks for pointing that out. Actually I wonder how clear Vygotsky was on this distinction. He appears to have set it out very clearly as being about changes in the development of mental functions taking a child from one stage to another, but then in stating that imitation is “everything that the child cannot do independently, but which he can be taught or which he can do with direction or cooperation or with the help of leading questions” (p.9) and with the chess and arithmetic example (p.10) he seems to just be picking on examples of learning without any clarity about what is developmentally different about being able or unable to do these things. Maybe, like Piaget, this is just a reflection of the primitive state of psychology in the 30’s, or maybe it’s just a limitation of this chapter. The whole book this chapter is from is in the UoS library (that offer still stands!); I’ll put it on my increasingly long reading list.
    Best wishes

  13. […] Briefly, most people use ZPD to suggest that there is a ‘Goldilocks Effect’ where the level of challenge for a child is ‘just right. If work is too easy, it’s argued, then no learning will take place, and if it’s too hard, then it will be inaccessible and students will become frustrated. Vygotsky himself describes ZPD 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).  […]

  14. I have never read Vygotsky in the original Russian. If I could I would also have to interpret as well as translate what he said owing to the repressive regime that ran in Russia at that time. What he was allowed to say was also revisioned by American academics including Wertsch, for their own purposes. Making sense of his ideas for myself I note that in his early career he worked in education for the deaf. The notion of language, and in particular, ‘inner speech’ is significant I feel. The usefulness of his theories, therefore, for me lie in the child’s development of concepts, mental scheme and the acquisition of knowledge. It is no wonder therefore that social constructionists would ignore this or apply it for their own ends.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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