I was recently listening to Todd Simkin on The Knowledge Project, a podcast that explores mental models for better decision making.
One idea that stuck with me was the zone of proximal development (ZDP), a theory developed by a Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky.
According to Lev, ZDP is:
“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”.source
In short, it’s the gap between how much you think you can do compared to what you could do with the right support from a more knowledgeable other – parent, teacher, mentor, etc.
Lev’s theory makes a lot of intuitive sense to me and it seems like having a way to measure the gap should help close it.
Learning is never as effective as when you actually get to try the thing on your own, in a space where it’s ok to fail and where you have access to someone who could unblock you if you’re stuck.
The context of Lev’s work is pretty interesting. When he was working on his theory in the early 1900s, Jean Piaget’s was in the public spotlight with his theory of child’s developmental stages.
Piaget’s focus was on the macro leaps and the associated skills that the child acquires roughly every 3 months.
The idea is that after the bigger leap, the child would be largely improving the skills associated with this developmental stage until the next leap unlocks new skills.
But Lev was more interested in what happened between the leaps and the potential in each micro learning interaction.
He recognised that there are things that the child can do today and the things we think they cannot – and between them is the zone of unexplored potential.
He proposed the zone of proximal development as a tool to assess the actual potential of the child at a given time, for a given skill.
The central concept in Lev’s theory is scaffolding which could take form of nudges, tips or questions that can be provided to the learner to stimulate independent skill formation.
Zooming out a bit from child development, ZDP helped me think through a challenge I face both as a manager and a friend – How to provide the right amount of support to a person whose growth I care about?
Give too much and you’re not giving them an opportunity to learn. Give too little and the task might be overwhelming.
I sometimes tend to struggle with making assumptions about the other person’s ability and potential.
ZDP could help me question these assumptions and instead design experiments (like a question or a task) to assess their actual potential at a given moment.
Hearing their answer or receiving the deliverable might help me get a sense of how far along they can go on their own. Then offer a nudge or feedback in places where I sense potential for more.
Finally, I think the ZDP can also empower myself as a learner to ask for the right level of support from others.
It can be frustrating to feel like someone is trying to solve a problem for me, instead of teaching me how to solve it on my own.
Often this pattern is perpetuated by people whose self-worth is rooted in being The Problem Solver. It’s the opposite of caring and it should be called out.
Imagine a therapist who is withholding certain kind of conversations from me because they think I am not ready to talk about it.
Sure, just going ahead and telling me the final insight (‘it seems like your father leaving your mother made you fuck up all relationships in your life’) might be too much for me to handle.
But it’s a mark of a skilful therapist to know they should create the zone of proximal development where I could be challenged to reflect on some questions and get to the depth of insight I am ready for.
Or not – in which case they would just confirm I am not ready to see it.
Maybe a final point thing I like about the ZDP is that it encourages both the teacher and the learner to share responsibility for the growth that can happen.
I suspect that if I show my temmates the ZDP chart, it might give us shared langauge to talk about their developmental windows and become more articulate about wanting support.
Sharing this with them might also build trust and communicate my intention towards their growth.
It’s like saying – I will do my best to support you, but I want you to feel the agency to call me out if you don’t think my way of supporting you is helpful.