December 17, 2015

By Jan Bryan

I want to tell you about a person who has been described in many ways: an “outstanding scientist,” an “eminent scholar,” and even a “genius.” I want to tell you about Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. –Gita Vygodskaya

And so begins Gita Vygotsky’s reflection of her father, sixty-years after his death. In Gita’s writing, we gain insight into Vygotsky’s ideals of learning as she shares one of her most vividly remembered lessons from her father. In this blog, we look at four dimensions of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) using Vygotsky’s own descriptions and a practical application example he shared with nine-year old Gita.

Describing the Zone of Proximal Development

Most educators have a basic understanding of the ZPD. Vygotsky called it the “zo-ped—the place at which a child’s empirically rich but disorganized spontaneous concepts ‘meet’ the systematicity and logic of adult reasoning” (Vygotsky, 1986). Later, and more succinctly, he put it, “With assistance, every child can do more than he can by himself (1986).” It is this concept—with assistance, every child can do more—that is the central theme of Gita’s most difficult, but most cherished, lifelong lesson.

Living the Zone of Proximal Development

Late in May, nine-year-old Gita raced home from school with good news to share. There had been an important exam given that day, and Gita—to put it in Americanized lingo—had aced it. She found great pride in her success and in her strategy to secure that success: During the exam, she had turned the page of her notebook so the girl sitting next to her could not copy her answers. A pure competitive edge. Expecting praise for her strategy, Gita was surprised at the expression on her father’s face, writing, “He looked very disappointed” (1995).

After a brief silence, Vygotsky gently explained that Gita should try to help those who need it, because life is rewarding only for those who help others. Gita asked him how to do that. In his answer, Vygotsky perfectly explained how teachers and learners work together within the zone of proximal development. First, he explained that Gita must go to her classmate and ask what it was she didn’t understand. Next, Gita should patiently explain it to her. If, however, Gita struggled to explain it so that her classmate understood perfectly, Vygotsky himself would be glad to help. Finally, Vygotsky explained what was most important as she worked with her classmate. Gita should do all of this so her friend knows that she wants to help, and really means her well, so it would not be unpleasant for her to accept Gita’s help.

So there it is—perhaps Vygotsky’s earliest work with the zone of proximate development. It seems fitting that a theoretical perspective based in social interaction among learners, adults, and more knowledgeable peers was brought to light in the gentle teachings between a father and his daughter. In later scholarly writings, Vygotsky (1986) defined ZPD as the distance between two points of development: 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. In this example, the classmate’s ZPD was the cognitive distance between the problems she could solve independently and those which she could only solve with help.

There was, however, another ZPD at work in Gita’s recollection, and we see it when Vygotsky explained the final and most important aspect of the expectations for Gita—expressing her concern to her peer and making it pleasant to accept help. Her ZPD clearly illuminated the sociocultural distance between what Gita knew to do in helping a peer and where she needed guidance to master a more mature method for serving as a “more knowledgeable peer.” As we learn more about non-cognitive influences in achievement, it helps to expand our understanding of the cognitive distance within a student’s ZPD to focus equally on the growth in the non-cognitive, or sociocultural, dimensions of learning required for achievement.

Vygotsky emphasizes that learning within the ZPD is both an independent and social enterprise; however, the greater emphasis is on sociocultural interaction. In particular, he stresses students working together without making one another uncomfortable. He goes as far as to say that learning requires social interaction with adults and collaboration with peers  (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90).

To clarify the intersection between range of difficulty and social interaction, Vygotsky stressed action along at least four dimensions when working with ZPD

  • Identify ability to engage in independent problem solving
  • Access peers as instructional resources
  • Receive guidance from adults
  • Focus on growth

Implementing the Zone of Proximal Development

Clearly Vygotsky described a range of difficulty, which is appropriately used to identify range of difficulty in reading, math, or any discipline of learning; however, there is more to the ZPD. As educators gain deeper understandings of classroom applications of learning progressions, such as the reading and math learning progressions in Renaissance Star Assessments, we see that Vygotsky was describing a progression of learning—one that is mediated by social interaction.

Star assessments place each student within the learning progression at the point he or she is ready to learn. Teachers gain insight regarding what students can do independently and what they can do with assistance. This could be considered at the heart of each student’s ZPD and certainly echoes Vygotsky’s description of instruction within the ZPD: “… that which marches ahead of development and leads it: aimed not so much at the ripe as the ripening functions” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 188).

Multiple resources accessible within the Star learning progressions provide avenues to expand—or ripen—the reach of the ZPD through independent problem solving and engaging with others in complex tasks. Wiliam (2011) echoes Vygotsky when he writes that activating students as instructional resources for one another expands the reach of conceptual development.  Further, it is reported that effective engagement in peer tutoring has an impact almost as strong as one-on-one instruction with a teacher (Schacter, 2000).

Ripening Our Zone of Proximal Development

With deepest admiration for Gita and her father, we continue to ripen our instructional skills and expand the reach of our professional zone of proximal development. We identify what we can do independently, access our professional peers as resources, seek help from experts in the field, and focus on our growth. Our professional lives gain meaning as we support one another. Through these blog posts, online discussions, and digital professional learning communities, we engage in the type of social interaction that marches ahead of development. Always keeping in mind Gita’s words:

“The most important thing,” he added, “you must do all this so your friend be sure you really want to help her, and really mean her well, and so it would not be unpleasant for her to accept your help.”


Schacter, J. (2000). Does individual tutoring produce optimal learning? American Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 801–829.

Vygodskaya, G. (1995). Remembering father. Educational Psychologist, 30(1), 57–59.

Vygodskaya, G. (1995). His life. Retrieved from

Vogotsky. L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vogotsky. L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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