What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

In a nutshell:
The zone of proximal development is best illustrated as a series of concentric circles.2,3

concentric circles


An inner circle represents what a learner knows on her own; this can be either a skill or a topic a student understands. A second circle encompassing the first circle represents the zone of proximal development in which there is a set of skills or knowledge a student cannot master on her own unless she has guidance and instruction from someone else. Finally, an outer circle encompassing the other two circles represents what a learner cannot do independently or with help.

The zone of proximal development is also closely tied to the concept of scaffolding, or a teaching method in which a student learns via guidance and working with a teacher or more advanced student to expand their understanding and move on to a higher level of learning after mastery at their current level.

Why bother?
The very role of teacher is highly related to both the techniques of scaffolding and the idea of the zone of proximal development. It is quite likely that as a teacher, you will encounter many students who need additional instruction and guidance to learn a particular set of skills or principles. Understanding the zone of proximal development and scaffolding concepts and tailoring teaching lessons with these principles in mind is not only a smart technique, but arguably, necessary.

The how-to guide:
There are a few ways to implement use of the zone of proximal development and scaffolding opportunities into the classroom.

Having a baseline understanding of each student’s zone of proximal development is a great way to begin this practice.2 This can be achieved through giving an introductory diagnostic assessment quiz or prompting a class discussion so you, as a teacher, can begin to understand the knowledge and ability level of your students.

Encouraging group work and giving students opportunities to share their ideas and thoughts aloud is another way to prompt scaffolding techniques in the classroom.

Finally, not offering TOO much help is an important consideration. The principles of scaffolding encourage guidance and giving a little extra help to a student.

History lesson:
The zone of proximal development and scaffolding concepts were originated by the developmental and cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). Vygotsky was interested in how social interaction influences the process of learning.1

He approached learning from a sociocultural framework, emphasizing that development and learning can vary across cultures and social contexts. Vygotsky believed that children most effectively acquired knowledge and enhanced their learning through assistance from skillful teachers, hence the development of his scaffolding and zone of proximal development theories.

The bottom line:
Sociocultural theories from psychology such as the zone of proximal development and scaffolding are helpful for structuring lessons in the classrooms. Understanding the influence of scaffolding and how the zone of proximal development may influence learning outcomes is also helpful when considering student success.


  1. McLeod, S. (2018). Lev Vygotsky. https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html
  2. Sarikas, C. (2018, July). Vygotsky scaffolding: what it is and how to use it. https://blog.prepscholar.com/vygotsky-scaffolding-zone-of-proximal-development
  3. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. Mind and Society, (79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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About the author:

Heidi A. Rued, M.S. is a student in the health psychology Ph.D. program at NDSU.

Rued specializes in research on stress physiology and childhood trauma.

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