You’re probably familiar with the idea of scaffolding educational activities. Just like the scaffolds that are used as temporary supports during the construction of a building, educational scaffolds are temporary supports that an educator puts in place to help students reach a fully-formed educational goal.
One of the trickier parts about scaffolding, though, is knowing how much to help. After all, if you give too much support, then students will not get the opportunity to learn and engage with the material in the way you had planned. On the other hand, if you don’t give enough support, students may not be able to understand the material.
Determining when to give additional scaffolding is not a simple decision. It is something of an art form, and teachers learn how to apply scaffolding through experience and trial and error. One of the tools they can use to think through these complex decisions is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
ZPD is credited to psychologist Leo Vygotsky, and is a theory he developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Building off of Jean Piaget’s work on childhood development, Vygotsky recognized that difficulty plays a major role in whether or not students are learning the material with which they are engaged.
Put simply, the ZPD demonstrates that there is a “Goldilocks spot” for difficulty in learning. The subject must be neither too hard nor too easy but just right in order for students to get the maximum learning opportunity from it.
If an activity is too difficult, students will give up, shut down, and stop engaging because they are frustrated.
If an activity is too easy, students will zone out, get bored, and stop engaging because they don’t feel challenged.
When an activity is in the Zone of Proximal Development, though, the frustration of learning something difficult is balanced by the reward of discovery, and students will remain engaged and working hard, deeply learning a new topic.
As students learn, the zone expands because they now have the skills and knowledge to do even more difficult tasks. As long as the activities remain within the ZPD, learning could theoretically continue to increase in complexity indefinitely. This is, after all, how experts become experts.
If you wonder how ZPD can be put into action, watch someone play a brand new video game. Video game developers are masters of the ZPD. They know that if a game is too frustrating, players will not stick with it. However, if the game is too easy, they will also stop playing.
Most video games come with very few formal instructions and instead introduce players to the rules and options gradually. Players learn the controls and the world’s narrative through playing, and the game gets increasingly difficult as the player’s knowledge and skills expand.
By starting within a narrow band of ZPD that quickly expands, video games masterfully keep players engaged for hours upon hours, preventing them from growing bored by always giving them new tasks and preventing them from giving up in frustration by always giving them just enough support to figure it out with hard work.
If you want to successfully scaffold your classroom activities, take a cue from these masters of ZPD and make sure that you are giving your students enough challenge to keep them engaged without making it too hard to complete.