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The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. It is a concept introduced yet not fully developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) towards the end of his life.
Vygotsky stated that a child follows an adult's example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help. Vygotsky's often-quoted definition of zone of proximal development presents it 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. For example, two 8 yr. old children may be able to complete a task that an average 8 yr. old cannot do. Next, more difficult tasks are presented with very little assistance from an adult. In the end, both children were able to complete the task. However, the styles methods they chose depended on how far they were willing to stretch their thinking process.
Vygotsky and some educators believe education's role is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning.
"The zone of proximal development defines functions that have not matured yet, but are in a process of maturing, that will mature tomorrow, that are currently in an embryonic state; these functions could be called the buds of development, the flowers of development, rather than the fruits of development, that is, what is only just maturing"
The concept of the zone of proximal development was originally developed by Vygotsky to argue against the use of academic, knowledge-based tests as a means to gauge students' intelligence. Vygotsky argued that, rather than examining what a student knows to determine intelligence, it is better to examine his or her ability to solve problems independently and his or her ability to solve problems with an adult's help. However, the untimely death of Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky interrupted his thinking about the zone of proximal development and work remained mostly incomplete.
Since Vygotsky's original conception, the definition for the zone of proximal development has been expanded and modified.
The zone of proximal development is an area of learning that occurs when a person is assisted by a teacher or peer with a higher skill set of the subject. The person learning the skill set cannot complete the skill set without the assistance of the teacher or peer. The teacher then helps the student attune the skill the student is trying to master in the hopes that the teacher is no longer needed.
Although the ideas of Vygotsky's ZPD were originally used strictly for one's ability to solve problems, Tharp and Gallimore point out that it can be used to examine other domains of competence and skills. These specialized zones of development include cultural zones, individual zones, and skill-oriented zones. Early-childhood-development researchers commonly believe that young children learn their native language and motor skills generally by being placed in the zone of proximal development.
Through their work with collaborative groups of adults, Tinsley and Lebak identified the "Zone of Reflective Capacity". This zone shares the theoretical attributes of the ZPD, but is a more specifically defined construct helpful in describing and understanding the way in which an adult's capacity for reflection can expand when he or she collaborates over an extended period with other adults who have similar goals. Tinsley and Lebak found that, as adults shared their feedback, analysis, and evaluation of one others work during collaboration, their potential for critical reflection expanded. The zone of reflective capacity expanded as trust and mutual understanding among the peers grew.
The zone of reflective capacity is constructed through the interaction between participants engaged in a common activity and expands when it is mediated by positive interactions with other participants, exactly along the same lines as the ZPD, as Wells described. It is possible to measure the learner’s ZPD as an individual trait showing a certain stability across instructional settings. The second perspective draws on work on interactive formative assessment integrated in classroom instruction. In this approach, assessment intervenes in the ZPD created by a learner’s on-going interactions with a given instructional setting. 
The concept of the ZPD is widely used to study children's mental development as it relates to education. The ZPD concept is seen as a scaffolding, a structure of "support points" for performing an action.Referring to the help or guidance from an adult or more competent peer to permit the child to work within the ZPD.Although Vygotsky himself never mentioned the term, scaffolding was developed by other sociocultural theorists applying Vygotsky's ZPD to educational contexts.
Scaffolding is a process through which a teacher or a more competent peer helps the student in his or her ZPD as necessary, and tapers off this aid as it becomes unnecessary, much as a scaffold is removed from a building after construction is completed. "Scaffolding [is] the way the adult guides the child's learning via focused questions and positive interactions." This concept has been further developed by Ann Brown, among others. Several instructional programs were developed on this interpretation of the ZPD, including reciprocal teaching and dynamic assessment. In order for scaffolding to work and have an effect one must come succumb to the child’s level and then build from there.
After children have gone through the ZPD and have learned how to use their language as a tool, they begin to use their internal speech to navigate through their culture and environment. Wells gives the example of dancing. When a person is learning how to dance they look to others around them on the dance floor and imitate their moves. A person does not copy the dance moves exactly, but take what they can and add their own personality to it.
Any function within the zone of proximal development matures within a particular internal context that includes not only the function’s actual level but also how susceptible the child is to types of help, the sequence in which these types of help are offered, the flexibility or rigidity of previously formed stereotypes, how willing the child is to collaborate, and other factors. This context can impact the diagnosis of a function’s potential level of development.