Social Learning in the Workplace 2 – ZPD

In terms of a learner’s cognitive development, Lev Vygotsky argues that learning precedes [skill and behavior] development. As developmental processes lag behind learning processes, less experienced (or developed) individuals can often carry out tasks with the help of others when they could not accomplish these tasks independently. The knowledge, behaviors and skills that learners demonstrate when assisted are actually in the process of becoming internalized in the learner’s schemata: the script is being written. As in Kolb’s and Fry’s four-stage cycle, this is a recursive process: unlike the experiential model though, the dialectic “tension” is a social discourse between the learner and the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO), rather than the modes described in the experiential model. Vygotsky (1978) maintains that cognitive development occurs in this area of the learning continuum in what he calls the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD).

The ZPD is the gap between a learner’s actual development level and the learner’s potential level of development. Vygotsky described the ZPD 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.

(1978, p.86)

This process of learning and encoding knowledge is analogous to some of Gagné’s Events of Learning (1985), where the MKO presents a learning stimulus, guides learning through example, elicits performance from the learner and provides feedback.

Similarly, it provides a theoretical foundation for Bruner’s concept of instructional scaffolding – the learner current level of knowledge can an edifice that represents their cognitive abilities. Mayes and de Freitas (2005) describe the scaffolding as “a means of exploiting the ZPD” (p.19). The cognitive scaffold surrounds what is already known and can be done. The new is built on top of the known as the learner develops, and over time the supports can be removed as the learner can independently actualize the knowledge, behavior or skill. Each new learned skill asset becomes a level in the learner’s constructed schema and this becomes the foundation for extending the learner’s ongoing development.

Zone of Proximal development (ZPD)

Figure 1. Zone of Proximal development (ZPD)

The concepts of the ZPD and scaffolding are central to how individuals develop using e-learning: I’ll explore how these concepts can be implemented in a later blog entry.



de Freitas, S. & Mayes, T. (2005). JISC e-Learning Models Desk Study Stage 2: Review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models. [Internet] London, JISC. Available from: Stage%202%20Learning%20Models%20(Version%201).pdf [Accessed 15th January 2017]

Fry, R. & Kolb, D. A. (1975) Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning. IN: Theory of Group Processes. (Cooper, C. ed). New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc

Gagne, R. (1985). The Conditions of Learning (4th ed). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Edited by Cole, M. John-Steiner, V. Scribner, Souberman, E. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press