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The Zone of Proximal Development

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed the theory of scaffolding, identifying what your child can learn with and without help. There are tasks your child can complete entirely on their own, and others they can complete with help. In terms of school-level questions which are close to your child’s ability, it’ll be fairly clear which they can do with help and which they can’t do at all.

Because psychologists basically get paid for making up complicated terms, Vygotsky named the difference between what the child can do for themselves and what they do with help the “zone of proximal development”. Your child is learning while they are working within that zone.

If your child is doing tasks they can already do, then they may be practising, but they aren’t learning anything new. Similarly, if you are doing all the work and your child isn’t contributing anything, then they aren’t learning in that case too. So as a basic guide, Vygotsky seems to be on to something. The real challenge is exploring the zone of proximal development.

The aim is to help as little as possible while letting your child get to the correct answer. Just telling them the answer is obviously no help at all but, there are many ways to help a little to get your child unstuck. Here are some ideas for that scaffolding, for how to help but still falling short of doing all the work:

Re-read the question – this doesn’t add anything except to give an auditory repetition of the words they have (hopefully) already read.

Re-read the question with emphasis on keywords – this can be massively useful, because often when getting the wrong answer a child has missed just one part of the question, and this can draw attention to it so they can have a re-think.

Prompt – So? What does that mean? What should we do next? Keep asking questions all the way through when helping, constantly push the work back onto your child to do. Like repetition with emphasis, this doesn’t technically add anything – you are just asking questions, not telling them anything. But it highlights the questions your child needs to be asking themselves in order to solve this question.

Start them off – in an English question you might need to choose a piece to work on, and you could find a suitable bit. In maths, you could point them at the number to start off with. Sometimes that’s all it takes and they can do the whole rest of the question from there. If that’s all they need, then don’t do any more.

Give lots of other examples of the same question – In maths you could ask the exact same question with some easier numbers, and do that a few times. If you can’t say how many wheels 7 cars have, start with one car, then two. In English maybe they can’t think of a description so you could describe similar things to give them ideas.

Break it down into stages – In maths there may be several steps that need to be taken to get to the right answer, and you can talk them through each step. In English you might need to think through what a character is doing and why, or how they might be feeling – they did this because they felt that because that had happened to them. You can split that up and make it explicit, so your child can think each step for themselves. Only give as many steps as you have to – keep trying to hand it over and getting your child to fill in the rest.

Help them through each stage – having broken a question down into stages you can then repeat all the techniques above within each stage to help them through it. This section breaks down into several sub-sections:

Check they understand each word – maybe there’s just a single unfamiliar word which is confusing them and explaining that might unlock the question for them. So first ask them if there’s anything they don’t understand and ask them the meaning of the keywords.

Check they understand the method – ask them what they think they need to do. If they have no idea, compare it to previous questions they’ve done.

Offer alternatives – Instead of asking an open question, where they have to provide the answer, change it to multiple-choice where they select an answer suggested by you. That will narrow down the possibilities and seeing the correct answer may jog their memory.

If you’ve done all of that and they’re still not getting it, then you do need to show them how to do it:

Tell them the hard bits – There may be a single word they don’t understand or a single method in maths that they are unable to do. Explain that bit, then let them use it to solve the rest of the question.

Show them how to do it all the way through – If your child really is all at sea then you can go through the question explaining each step. If you’re doing this then something has gone pretty wrong with your kid’s teaching, that they’re being asked to do questions which are beyond them. At this stage, you need to step back and identify all the techniques which the teacher is assuming your kid knows but currently doesn’t. Maybe they’ve never read such an advanced piece of text and need to have the difficulty of that gradually increased; maybe it’s a piece of maths they’ve been shown but don’t have the confidence to apply yet. Whatever it is, take a step back, find the underlying problem and, if you have the time, work on that instead. Leave this question alone and don’t even try it. It’ll only frustrate and de-motivate your child. Work on the real next step instead.

It’s important to remember that your child handing in the right answer doesn’t matter at all. If they’re getting it wrong, you have to let their teacher know they’re getting it wrong, so they know what level to review and pitch their learning at. Handing in work that you’ve completed achieves nothing.

Handing in work you’ve done achieves worse than nothing – because then the child doesn’t take responsibility for their work. They know they can try a little, then give up and hand it over to you as soon as it looks even a little difficult. That’s a terrible lesson for later in life. Marks in junior school don’t matter at all, and that’s exactly as it should be. You have to have feedback, but it’s without any consequences. So you child has to know that they will be doing the work and that the work they hand in is their own.

How do you reconcile helping them with handing in their own work? I like to add notes on the homework to questions where I assisted. That doesn’t describe how much help was needed, according to the scale above – it could range anywhere from reading out the question for them (which barely counts as help at all) to talking them through the entire answer, which is me doing all the work. But at least it gives the teacher an indication that your child could do some bits on their own and some bits needed help or correction.

See also

Getting it wrong

No, they're not 'good at maths'

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