ZPD Illustration and Reflection

Vygotsky (1978) maintained the child follows the adult's example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help or assistance. He called the difference between what a child can do with help and what he or she can do without guidance the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD).

The swimming learner starts to learn swimming. She needs an adult or a more capable peer to go into the pool with her. Without the assistance, she cannot accomplish the task.

She is at her actual development level.

The swimming learner follows the coach's example and gradually develops the ability to swim. Now she receives assistance from her swimming ring and herself, and the understanding grows.
The swimming learner is at internalization level, - a person's transition from joint collective accomplishment of an activity to individual accomplishment. She can swimming without any assistance.  
Now the swimming learner is reaching the full potential. However, I believe there are always new swimming skills for her to learn. Hence the learning starts again.  


When I was reading A Vision of Vygotsky, the concept of Zone of Proximal Development reminded me of a summer experience tutoring young children how to swim when I was a teenager. On the first day of the swimming class a few little girls were too timid to go into the pool. They needed me, the teaching assistant, to hold their hands leading them slowly to the water. When they accomplished the first step, I did floating and breathing exercises with them. I often encouraged them to go a little further beyond floating and breathing by giving them a swimming ring, and let them experience how to move forward without my support. When they could move forward for a meter, I encouraged them to swim for two, three,... ten, twenty ... meters. I found this was the effective way for them to develop their swimming skills. I realized that if I focused on their actual level, they would orient the learning to yesterday's development. I was amazed at how brave they were, and how they fought against the fear of failure. As their understanding grew, they gradually reached their potential development level when they could swim all by themselves for a required length. Then they were allowed to graduate. Now I understand the distance between their swimming level on this graduation day and that on the first day is called Zone of Proximal Development. This concept of development is that experience is often out in front leading and expanding development in unlimited ways.

To see how Vygotsky's theory apply to a classroom, I recently conducted a case study. This case study shows the importance of the sociocultural context in relation to our learning and development. In a Vygotsky model classroom, a teacher has a role to assist the emerging competencies of the students. The teacher creates social environments (zpd) of what the students can achieve independently, and what the student can achieve with assistance from more capable peers. One way a teacher can encourage socialization is to create group activities. Through social interaction with peers in group activities, students can verbalize their thinking, and deepen their understanding. Utilizing thought for reflection and language for communication, students can dynamically move back and forth from intra- to inter-personal communication. Communication is the essence of the socio-cultural experience when students are learning and solving problems.

The computer and the Internet technologies, based on Vygotsky's theory, would provide a virtual work space for peer instruction, collaboration, and small group instruction. Like the environment, the instructional design of material to be learned would be structured to promote and encourage student interaction and collaboration. Thus the classroom becomes a community of learning.


Wink, Joan and Putney, LeAnn.(2002). A Vision of Vygotsky. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved October 17, 2004 from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/learning/lr1zpda.htm.

Riddle & Dabbagh. Lev Vygotsky's Social Development Theory. Retrieved October 17, 2004 from

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