While reading about the zone of proximal development, the details tend to muddle up what seems to me to be a very basic and natural aspect of learning and developing as individuals. It seems almost strange that people would have a hard time recognizing and accepting Vygotsky’s position because it’s such a part of everybody’s learning process. While the article begins with children at a preschool level, I think it’s easiest to see the ZPD at work in infants. Though babies’ brains are rapidly taking in information there is very little they can actually do themselves (that’s why they have parents!). The only way toddlers learn is by observing and repeating, or using assistance to complete a task. Kids constantly mirror their parents and develop language simply by listening to the examples around them.
For instance, think about how a child learns the parts of their face, such as “nose”. First, the parent points to his or her own nose and says the word. Then, they may take the child’s finger and put it on their own nose, repeating the word. Eventually, the child learns that pointing to that spot on his or her parent elicits a certain desirable action (think very upbeat voice, smiling face). From that point, the parent may take the child’s finger, place it on his or her nose, and give the reaction the child is used to from the aforementioned activity. Ultimately, the goal is to get the child to point to his or her own nose and say the word. Before any modeling or assistance from a parent, the child would never just point to his or her parent’s nose and expect a response. But that doesn’t mean the child is not capable of it, they just needed some guidance to make the activity meaningful.
In my own personal experience in the classroom I have used this modeling/assistance with students to engage higher level thinking. Just last week we did an activity with putting cubes together. At first I just told them the point of the activity, “put your cubes together any way you want so that when you pick them up, they stay together.” Upon viewing the expected confused expressions, I elaborated, “Make some kind of design, any kind you want, but all of your cubes have to be stuck together.” I then began putting mine together, and feeling comfortable and confident that they knew what to do, the students also began.
The ZPD is an essential part of understanding how students learn and what they are capable of. I think it is especially important because, as educators, we need to be aware of how much, or often times how little, we are stretching our students thinking to provide new insights and capabilities.