The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the best known Vygotskian concept. To successfully apply it in a classroom, it is important to know not only where a child is functioning now and where that child will be tomorrow, but also how best to assist that child in mastering more advanced skills and concepts. This is where scaffolding comes in. Although not used by Vygotsky himself, the concept of scaffolding helps us understand how aiming instruction within a child’s ZPD can promote the child’s learning and development.
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) describes the area between a child’s level of independent performance (what he/she can do alone) and the child’s level of assisted performance (what he/she can do with support). Skills and understandings contained within a child’s ZPD are the ones that have not yet emerged but could emerge if the child engaged in interactions with knowledgeable others (peers and adults) or in other supportive contexts (such as make-believe play for preschool children). According to Vygotsky, the most effective instruction is the kind that is aimed not at the child’s level of independent performance but is instead aimed within the ZPD. This instruction does more than increase a child’s repertoire of skills and understandings; it actually produces gains in child development.
To aim instruction at the child’s ZPD, the teacher needs to know not only what the child’s developmental level is at the time, but also what skills and concepts will develop next. To know these, the teacher needs to understand the developmental trajectories for these skills and concepts. Successful instruction within the child’s ZPD also involves making sure that the child will be eventually able to function independently at the same high level at which he or she was previously able to function with adult assistance. Once this is accomplished, the teacher can start aiming instruction at the new ZPD.
Even when children have developed new skills and competencies sufficient to perform a task with adult assistance, it may not mean that tomorrow they will be ready to perform the task independently. For most children, the transition from assisted to independent learning is a gradual process that involves moving from using a great deal of assistance to slowly taking over until eventually no assistance is needed. To facilitate this transition, a teacher needs to scaffold student learning by first designing and then following a plan for providing and withdrawing appropriate amounts of assistance at appropriate times.
In the Vygotskian approach, instructional strategies used to scaffold include (but are not limited to) hints, prompts, and cues given and later removed by the teacher. Scaffolding can also involve orchestrating social contexts known to support children’s learning, such as make-believe play or specifically designed group activities. Scaffolding may also involve introducing children to special tools (such as an alphabet chart) and behaviors (such as private speech or self-talk) that children can use to self-assist while mastering a new skill or concept.