When we speak about learning, we divide it into ‘what a learner knows’ and ‘what a learner doesn’t know’. Wouldn’t it be better to approach learning with a smidge of positivity and potential?

The landscape of learning is full of possibilities. When we categorize learners based on their current knowledge, we limit their potential. Instead if we guide them, they are in a better position to build on their individual knowledge. 

Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist well known for his cognitive development research defined the Zone of Proximal Development in learning. 

What is the Zone of Proximal Development? 

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) has been defined 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 under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)

While his theory was focused on children and adolescents, we can trace its impact to adults and how we approach learning. In his research, Vygotsky highlights that the need for close interaction with others and the benefits learning within an environment overpower learning independently. 

Let’s take a look at the visual representation of the Zone of Proximal Development:

Image source

In this diagram, we observe the three zones of learning:

Zone 1: Learner can do alone

In this zone, a learner is confident in applying the concept alone without any guidance. 

Zone 2: Learner can do with guidance

Zone 2 is where the learner needs assistance to achieve a task. 

Zone 3: Learner cannot do alone or with guidance

In this zone, a learner has not developed skills to do the task or apply the concept and cannot do it with any guidance. 

In this week’s blog, we will focus on Zone 2 which is the Zone of Proximal Development, discuss the components of ZPD and share actionable tips to build these components in our daily lives: 

Lev highlights three components of ZDP that help a learner achieve the task. Let’s take a look at these components and break them down into practices that we can build: 

1. MKO: A ‘More Knowledgeable Other’ is an individual (teacher, peer) who has more knowledge and or skills compared to the learner. 

Practice 1: Ask for help

The ‘Help’ door is wide open. We will find peers around us who are more knowledgeable about a topic than us. While asking for help, give context, the challenge and ‘solutions-already-tried’ to help your MKO help you better. 

Practice 2: Forums and social media

 In our times, a More Knowledgeable Other could be your Twitter friend or a community. Reach out with specific problems in learning. 

2. Social setting: The opportunity for the learner to spend time in social settings to practice their skills. 

Practice 1: Hackathons or similar events

Hackathons or building events or workshops are a great way to build skills and meet like-minded people. For example, as I was transitioning to product, I was a part of 5 product communities. These communities prioritized product interviews, product building sessions and gave me the opportunity to learn and apply. 

Practice 2: Host learning sessions

It is helpful to bring learners focused on the same skill to practice together. Sports is a great example where players practice as a team and help each other improve. 

3. Scaffolding: Tools and resources that help the learner elevate their understanding

The guidance begins at the level of the learner, helps them build confidence and skills and tapers off once the foundation is built. Learning to drive with an instructor or a parent is a good example of scaffolding. 

Practice 1: Reviews

Scaffolding reviews are a great way to recall the past week and plan the next. This helps strengthen the skills learnt and push further. 

Practice 2: Microlearning

Microlearning helps drill down skills into bitesized outcomes. Break down a skill into its components and reflect on each component before and after completion. A good example of microlearning is building a website and sharing your daily progress such as the initial landing page, font styles etc with an audience for quick and recurring feedback. 

The Zone of Proximal Development theory is a great reminder that we don’t need thousands of tools to learn, but the right environment with knowledgeable peers and opportunities to interact and learn at the same time. 

Unlearning Thought

Zone 3 (Learner cannot do alone or with guidance) is not scary but just an unchartered territory. It’s time to climb up the rabbit hole and get back to that skill that you are avoiding.