Vygotsky Scaffolding Theory & Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky Scaffolding Theory & Zone of Proximal Development

Whether you’re a teacher, trainer, or workplace leader, you need to know about scaffolding theory and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Why? It’s an incredible tool that helps the people you’re teaching, training, or mentoring to reach new heights. Discover why social interaction is actually the key to fostering independent learning.

Who is Lev Vygotsky?

Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist whose expertise was in developmental psychology. His work can be compared to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, in which Bandura suggested that students learn through observed behaviour within various social contexts. However, Vygotsky’s theory goes a step further than this. 

Vygotsky believed that students learn through social interaction, not just social observation. This difference is significant because it suggests that both students and teachers should be actively participating in the learning process. However, there is a specific time for when teachers can give the most support and instruction.

In relation to his work on how children learn, Vygotsky believed that there is no ideal age to learn new skills, but there are ideal stages. This means that there are specific areas of learning which are crucial to cognitive development. These areas can be found in each student’s most ideal stage, called the zone of proximal development.

4 stages of learning vygotskys zone of proximal development

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Each student’s learning can be divided into 4 stages or levels:

  1. Upper Limit – Essentially, the upper limit is the learning goal of each student. It contains material which the student currently cannot learn, even with the full support of a teacher and more capable peers.
  2. Zone of Proximal Development – The student’s zone of proximal development is also known as their potential development level. It is what they are capable of learning only within a social process, such as through the guidance of a teacher or advanced peers.
  3. Lower Limit – The lower limit is also known as the actual developmental level or the student’s current level of cognitive development. It is what they are capable of learning through independent problem solving.
  4. Comfort Zone – This is what students have already mastered or achieved.

At the heart of Vygotsky’s theory is the belief that students can only attain their learning goals and become independent learners if their zone of proximal development is maximised. Simply put, a learner can only reach their full potential if you help them first.

Instructional Scaffolding Theory

Contrary to popular belief, the Soviet psychologist didn’t actually coin the term “scaffolding” used in the educational context. Instead, the term “scaffolding” was coined by Jerome Bruner, who based it on Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Scaffolding in education is best defined as a system for maximising the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). 

By using scaffolds such as the teacher or competent peers, the scaffolding technique gives adequate support for the student to build on their cognitive development. Similar to how games have characters who guide the player through key steps, scaffolding uses social interaction to pull the student further along their learning journey.

how to use vygotzky scaffolding theory effectively

How to Use the Scaffolding Theory

In addition to its popularity in the classroom, even training organisations can use the scaffolding theory to help their trainees achieve their learning goals in the best and fastest way possible. Here are 3 core steps to using the scaffolding technique as well as 5 scaffolding strategies to help ensure that it’s being done correctly and effectively:

Step 1: Assess the student’s understanding

For training organisations, this means that there should be a quick assessment before the start of each learning unit. This quick assessment doesn’t need to be comprehensive and can just  be 1-3 short and simple questions. Another option would be to ask the students/learners to state or explain their level of understanding. 

Step 2: Determine the student’s ZPD

Based on the student’s comprehension and skill level, estimate how much of the lesson/course can they go through on their own. Anything that they can do or understand through their own learning is outside of their ZPD. To figure out what exactly is within the student’s ZPD, use the following questions:

  • What areas would they need the teacher/trainer’s direct help in? 
  • Which part might solicit the most questions? 
  • What could possibly block the learner’s understanding of the topic?

Step 3: Use the contingent shift framework

The learner’s ZPD is where you will need to provide contingent support. This simply means:

  • Providing more support or higher level of control/mediation if the student/learner exhibits lower or incorrect understanding
  • Providing less support or lower level of control/mediation if the student/learner exhibits higher or correct understanding

1. Pace your support

A study (Van de Pol et al., June 2015) showed that high contingent support (i.e. scaffolding) resulted in improved achievement only when students worked independently for long periods of time. This was also the case for prevention of task effort loss (i.e. decreased student motivation).

2. Test their limits

On increasing the effectiveness of ZPD as a tool for learning, researchers state that “giving students the hardest tasks they can do with scaffolding will lead to the greatest learning gains.” The teacher/trainer should challenge the problem solving skills of students/learners.

3. Focus on manageable steps

Giving students/learners a highly complex problem (even within their ZPD/with scaffolding) without breaking it down into manageable steps is a recipe for disaster. It would make them feel intimidated and unable to process the problem, much less solve it.

4. Instruct group work

Though encouraging students/learners to teach each other and discuss the learning material is good, doing that alone can’t qualify as scaffolding. Instead, the teacher/trainer should structure group activities in such a way that learning from others is guaranteed.

5. Provide a safe space

The teaching/training environment has a significant impact on the potential development or ZPD of students/learners. It’s crucial that the teacher/trainer allows them to make mistakes, gives enough time to complete complex problems, and provides feedback promptly.

vygotsky theory mentoring with employees


The Vygotsky Theory in the Workplace

You may not know this but workplace leaders can use the scaffolding theory to guide their team members in achieving their work, professional, or learning goal. This is in support of the path-goal theory, which asserts that leaders must adapt to the needs of their team members. 

Deskless workers 

Given the lack of connection that deskless workers often feel, more purposeful social interaction can potentially help them be more engaged in the working and training process. To motivate deskless workers, any sort of scaffolding should be efficient and make sense for their job/role.

Skills gap

The skills of your team members are fundamental to their performance. It’s important that you not only identify their skills gap, but close it through scaffolding that is tailored to their ZPD. The guidance that you provide as a leader should help them become more capable on their own.

Active role

Scaffolding requires that every person actively participate in the working and training process. While your team members need to seek out help when they don’t understand, you need to also give out instruction when you notice that their responses/performance is lacking or incorrect.

Strategic Support 

If a target goal can’t be changed even if team members find it difficult to achieve, you need to ensure that the support you’re giving them is helpful. By understanding where team members can take the reins and where you need to step in, you’ll lessen both their workload and yours.


Even if you’re not an “official” leader, if you’re someone’s workplace mentor, you are their scaffold in whatever you’re mentoring them on. Your social interaction with them should be enabling them to gain a better understanding of the topic. 

Though a complete understanding is something they should achieve through their own experience or practice, it’s still your responsibility to help them get started on it.

Recruiting based on ZPD?

Standardised tests measure the individual’s current problem solving abilities, but not their potential problem solving abilities. Even with individuals who are at the same level without help, one student might perform better than the other when both receive scaffolding. This has implications for settings outside of the classroom as well. 

Recruiters might want to test for the ZPD of the candidate instead of their actual abilities. With this new method of testing, recruiters are less likely to overlook candidates with untapped potential. After all, organisations are built around the fact that people can only accomplish certain things when they’re working together. 

vygotsky theory mentoring with employees


Beyond the classroom, scaffolding theory has many practical applications. With it:

  • Trainees can receive training that suits them, but also challenges them.
  • Team members can receive support and instruction that helps them meet their goals.
  • Candidates can receive opportunities to discover and use their potential.

However, it’s important that you use the theory correctly by following the scaffolding strategies mentioned earlier and adapting them to your context and needs.

Further Reading

Now that you’ve learned all about ZPD and the proper way to do scaffolding, read up on other theories such as Kolb’s experiential learning theory, Honey and Mumford’s theory, and Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory.

600 400 Gianpiero Rusconi