Vygotsky himself defined it 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 and adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (1978, p. 86).
That is to say, it’s that point where learning is still other-regulated, but where the potential for self-regulation is imminent – the moment that the child, teetering on her bike, still needs the steadying touch of her mother’s hand. Teaching is optimally effective, the theory goes, when it “awakens and rouses into life those functions which are in the stage of maturing, which lie in the zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1934, quoted in Wertsch 1985, p. 71).
It’s important to note that the ZPD is not the learner’s ‘level’ in the traditional sense in which we grade students, nor even the level just above, but that, as Gordon Wells puts it, it is “created in the interaction between the student and the co-participants in an activity… and depends on the nature and quality of the interaction as much as on upper limit of the learner’s capability” (Wells, 1999, p. 318). Because the ZPD cannot be gauged in advance, and is a property neither of the learner nor of the interaction alone, “from the teacher’s perspective, … one is always aiming at a moving target” (op.cit., p. 319).
These elusive, emergent, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic properties of the ZPD raise the question as to whether it has any pedagogical applications at all. If it’s not the student’s level (or level + 1), what is it? And how can it be manipulated for optimal learning?
Scholars in the sociocultural tradition have suggested that the way classroom talk is scaffolded (see S is for scaffolding), with the teacher providing only the minimal assistance necessary to enable the learner’s performance, can help orient the activity towards the learner’s ZPD and thereby influence its potential for learning. Optimal experience theorists (see F is for Flow) would also argue that the ZDP is situated at the point where challenge and skill are counter-balanced. Advocates of task-based learning likewise suggest that the judicious calibration of task conditions, such as preparation time and rehearsal, can provide the optimal balance between safety and risk-taking that is associated with the concept of the ZPD, and thereby lead to learning.Others have tried to map the ZPD onto Krashen’s concept of input + 1 and Swain’s analogous concept of output + 1 (see P is for Push). When, during an engaging question-and-answer session at last year’s JALT conference, I asked Jim Lantolf (who, more than anyone, has championed Vygotsky’s relevance to SLA: see Lantolf, 2000, for example) if there were any grounds for making this connection, he was dismissive. “For a start, input + 1 and output + 1 describe qualities of language, not of cognition. Nor do they situate this language within the context of collaborative, interactive activity”. (In fact, Krashen’s Input Hypothesis rejects the need for interaction altogether). Kinginger (2002) is even more scathing, and argues that Vygotsky’s original concept – fuzzy as it was – has been shamelessly co-opted for ideological purposes, as a way of prettifying activities “that have always been done in classrooms where speaking activity takes place as a pretext for grammar practice, only now we are calling it the ‘ZPD’” (p. 255).
Despite all this fuzziness, the notion of the ZPD permeates current rhetoric on teaching. Is it just a fairly meaningless buzz word, or does it still have some currency?
Kinginger, C. 2002. ‘Defining the zone of proximal development in US foreign language education’. Applied Linguistics, 23/2. 240-261.
Lantolf, J. (ed.) 2000. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wells, G. 1999. Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch, J. 1985. Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, MA.; Harvard University Press