Appropriate Challenge and the ZPD

While we all love a good acronym, it can be frustrating when they get thrown around and you feel like you are not in the know.  Chances are, however, even if you don’t know what ZPD is off the top of your head, you probably think about it in the context of your classroom all the time.

ZPD is short for Zone of Proximal Development, which was developed by Lev Vygotsky in the 1920s and was elaborated on until his death in 1934.  The ZPD is used to describe the distance between what a child can do independently and what they can do with the assistance of a more knowledgeable partner (Eun, 2019).  That more knowledgeable partner could be the teacher, a peer, or even an interactive computer program.  The ZPD is the basis for a lot of our current scaffolding practices such as simplifying a task, monitoring ongoing performance, and adjusting the level of assistance provided.  We can also see the influence of the ZPD when we use graphic organizers to support student thinking, help them choose a “just right” book to read, or reference the learning continuum from student Map results to target learning.  The ZPD goes beyond scaffolding, however, framing student-teacher collaboration and negotiation as a bilateral process as opposed to something that is always done by the teacher.  Finding appropriate challenge and thus avoiding boredom and confusion and the subsequent distraction, frustration, and lack of motivation, is thus a shared responsibility.

Closely tied to the concept of a ZPD are social practices associated with learning, both in and out of the classroom.  Vygotsky believed that learning was a process of knowledge co-construction and becoming a member of a community, reframing learning to be more than just an accumulation of knowledge (Renshaw, 1998), but rather a property of the interaction between the students and the learning environment (Shabani, Khatib, & Ebadi, 2010).  In our classrooms students are learning more than just the content we teach, they are learning the vocabulary and ways of talking about the different subject areas, they are learning to communicate and verify different knowledge claims, and they are learning the values and beliefs that form the implicit and explicit features of our community culture.  Knowledge and abilities are dynamic and are the result of a student’s history and social interactions in the world and we all come to master our cognitive functions in unique ways and through participation in different activities and cultures.  Thinking through the lens of the ZPD can give us another way to think about developing cultural objectives that are meaningful for our students and how they see themselves and form their identities in the various content areas they move in and out of throughout the day.

When we think about learning and the ZPD it is easy to see how students learn through the support of a more knowledgeable peer, but this social component of learning is supportive for the development of the higher mental functions of both students (Shabani, Khatib, & Ebadi, 2010).  The collaboration provides a space for the more knowledgeable student to reflect and make concepts explicit in their thinking.  These roles often evolve as well, with students taking on different roles at different points in their learning.

So what role do I play as a teacher?  Think of students not as just separate individuals in the same place at the same time.  Rather they should be engaged in a collaborative activity that fulfils a specific goal where the ZPD is created based on the need for collaboration and assistance to make progress toward that goal.  The teacher’s role is thus facilitating the interrelated zones of students as they take control of their own learning.  We are on a continuous journey with our students as they progress through different and evolving zones and make sense of the world.  Vygotsky said it well, suggesting that teachers must be focusing “not on yesterday’s development in the child buy on tomorrow’s” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 211).


Eun, B. (2019). The zone of proximal development as an overarching concept: A framework for synthesizing Vygotsky’s theories. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(1), 18-30.

Renshaw, P. (1998). Sociocultural pedagogy for new times: Reframing key concepts. The Australian Educational Researcher25(3), 83-100.

Shabani, K., Khatib, M., & Ebadi, S. (2010). Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development: Instructional implications and teachers’ professional development. English language teaching3(4), 237-248.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton (eds.)., The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 1. Problems of general psychology (pp. 39-285).. New York: Plenum.

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