Zone of Proximal Development

ZPD

The photo above shows 3 levels of task demands for children based on Vygotsky’s levels of development.

  • On the left is a level in which the student can readily perform the task independently, i.e. he is doing something he already knows how to do.
  • On the right is a level that is too challenging for the student to accomplish independently. It is something he cannot do and does not know how to do.
  • In the middle is a sweet spot. The level involves tasks that are accessible to the student but with support – scaffolding.

In reading this is known as the “instructional level” – see photo below. Reading material is evaluated by determining how challenging it is for a student. Material that the student can read independently allows for some growth in reading ability. Material that the student finds too challenging would not allow for substantive growth. In the middle is the sweet spot – the Zone of Proximal Development.

Instructional Level

We can do the same with math using scaffolding. In the photo below is work performed by a former 7th grade student of mine with Asperger’s who tested at a 1st grade math level. I used colored pencils and 2 sided tokens to support his work with integers (red for negative and yellow for positive) in a CRA approach. The color coding and tokens were like the swimmies in the photo above of the child in the ZPD. Eventually these supports were faded. Throughout this process I was constantly pressing him to do more with a little less assistance.

adding integers chips and colored pencils

I want to emphasize 2 major points regarding this.

  • Substantive learning occurs when a student has to step beyond his or her current ability level – the ZPD.
  • Often in schools educators avoid this, especially for students with special needs, because we want students to be engaged and successful (in the short term). We often confuse being active with learning. The guy on the tricycle in the top photo was performing a task but was he learning? (Note: this is not a student with special needs but a guy having some fun.)

Here’s are a video that fleshes out this idea.

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