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Understanding The Zone of Proximal Development In Business - HRDQ

Understanding The Zone of Proximal Development In Business

Why is it that some employees seem to pick up new skills right away while others struggle to grasp new concepts? Why are some training programs so much more successful than others?

One theory of childhood development and learning, known as the zone of proximal development, can help us understand how employees gain new skills and knowledge during training.

Developed by an early 20th-century Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development focuses on the social aspects of learning. He believed new skills and information could be mastered and understood by interacting with a more skilled teacher or peer.

If it's time for your workforce to move beyond their current level of skills and knowledge, you can use the zone of proximal development in conjunction with your training programs to help ensure an effective and efficient learning experience for your whole team.

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What Is the Zone of Proximal Development?

The zone of proximal development is an educational psychology concept that has been expanded to apply to the business world.

Knowledgeable Leader Guiding Employees

This "zone" is the area between what an individual is capable of doing without outside help and what that same individual cannot do even with the help of someone else. In this zone, also referred to as the zone of potential development, are the abilities that a person can perform with the help and guidance of someone more knowledgeable.

The Origin of the Concept

This learning theory was first developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky is best known for his sociocultural theory, which incorporates societal contributions to the development of each individual.

The zone of proximal development was first conceived by Vygotsky as a part of his argument against measuring the intelligence of students using knowledge-based academic tests. The theory also intended to expand beyond the eyes developed by Jean Piaget regarding children being autonomous learners.

Through his research, Vygotsky found that children left to discover information and knowledge on their own can only advance so far. More knowledgeable people are necessary, in Vygostky's view, for a child's development.

Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky died at age 37 from a relapse of tuberculosis, leaving much of his work on the zone of proximal development incomplete. Despite his untimely death, Vygotsky contributed many significant ideas to the world of psychology beyond the zone of proximal development, including the significance of play, the importance of mediation, and the social origin of mind.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that Vygotsky and his work became widely known. Both his books and research were banned in the Soviet Union after Vygotsky's death until the death of Stalin. Though Vygotsky died in 1937, the first collection of his major works wasn't published in the Soviet Union until 1956.

In the US, his work remained largely untranslated into English until Thinking and Speech was translated and published in 1962. Around two decades later, his concept of the zone of proximal development was rediscovered and became popularly used in educational psychology and practice.

What Are the Stages of the Zone of Proximal Development?

Though the zone of proximal development was initially conceived in relation to childhood development and learning, much can be gained from applying these ideas to the business world. When understanding how new and existing employees can develop new skills and abilities, it can be helpful to identify each individual's zone of proximal development.

Zone of Proximal Development Stages

There are three distinct stages found within this theory. Let's explore each of these to help better understand where the zone of proximal development precisely lies.

Tasks an Individual Can't Accomplish With Help

When a person can't complete a task, even when a knowledgeable person is there to guide them, it means that the task lies outside of the zone of proximal development.

Individual Unable to Accomplish a Task With Help

That implies that the task is too difficult for the individual and that they will likely need to take on an easier task to succeed and continue developing their skills.

Tasks an Individual Can Accomplish With Help

If a person needs help from an expert to complete a task, the skill lies within their zone of proximal development.

Individual Accomplishing a Task With Help

The person training the individual can utilize several different techniques to help teach the skills and concepts that the learning individual needs to be autonomous in performing the task.

Tasks an Individual Can Accomplish Without Help

When a person can complete a task without any help from an expert, they have acquired the skill set they need to perform the task.

Individual Accomplishing a Task Without Help

At this point, a manager might increase the difficulty of tasks assigned to this individual to encourage further learning and locate the next zone of proximal development.

The Zone of Proximal Development: Key Elements

Vygotsky developed several key elements and concepts while he was alive, and many others after him expanded upon these ideas.

Employees Being Trained

To be successful in using the zone of proximal development as a training and development technique, certain concepts must be present. Let's explore these three essential components.

The Presence of Someone More Knowledgeable

An individual needs to be present with a higher level of knowledge than the person learning a new skill. In the zone of proximal development theory, this person is referred to as the "more knowledgeable other."

Knowledgeable Leader Training an Employee

It's worth noting that the "more knowledgeable other" doesn't necessarily need to be a person. It can be any visual and/or audio input source, such as a computer, a recording, or a book.

Supportive Activities (Scaffolding)

Another essential part of this development theory is scaffolding, which are supportive activities, tools, instructions, and resources that the individual can use during the learning and training process.

Employee Completing Supportive Activities

As the learner develops and becomes more capable of completing tasks independently, these scaffolding activities and resources can be taken away. Vygotsky didn't introduce the concept of scaffolding, but rather this idea was suggested by researchers who have worked to expand upon his work.

Social Interaction

Though the "more knowledgeable other" might be a manager or supervisor when using this concept in business, Vygotsky also believed peer learning was a powerful tool.

Employee Social Interaction

In relation to childhood learning, Vygotsky believed that children who had mastered a skill could benefit others by socially interacting with children who were still in their zone of proximal development.

That is very likely the case for adults as well. Though it's helpful to have a "more knowledgeable other" offer guidance during training, it can benefit all involved for co-workers to be able to teach and learn from one another. 

How Can the Zone of Proximal Development Be Applied to Business?

Even though the zone of proximal development theory was conceived in relation to the way that children learn, the general idea can be beneficial when considering the training and development of your employees.

When your workers feel bored, it means that they aren't being challenged enough. On the other end of the spectrum, employees can face a great deal of frustration when they feel that they haven't been adequately trained for the tasks they are responsible for. Both boredom and this type of frustration can lead to employee dissatisfaction and increased attrition rates.

Are you struggling to keep your employees' attention during training? Check out this article to learn how to keep them engaged and motivated as they learn new skills.

A Team of Employees

One of the primary lessons we can glean from the zone of proximal development theory is the importance of understanding the current skill level of each employee and how their abilities match up with their responsibilities.

For employees who have mastered the tasks they are currently performing, it might be time to pair them up with a mentor to help them learn new skills. For employees that seem to be struggling with their tasks, you might want to have a more knowledgeable superior or co-worker sit down with them and help them master the skills they are struggling with.

In some cases, you might find that the task is outside of the employee's skill level. In these instances, you could decide to change their responsibilities so that they are adequately challenged without feeling frustrated.

Using the Zone of Proximal Development in Training

There are many different factors that can influence the efficacy of training programs. For example, some might include more engaging activities, while others might have more interesting content. Beyond these types of details, though, it's essential to consider how information is presented during training and how participants internalize that information.

Some managers choose to use the zone of proximal development as a part of their training system because of its focus on how individuals master new skills and understand new information.

Leader Training Employees

By being able to identify the zone of proximal development for your trainees, you can use this theory to ensure that your employees exit the training process with the skills they need to succeed. This method focuses on understanding where an individual is and helping them expand their current ability levels.

When you approach training in this way, it can help to reduce both boredom and frustration. You might find that some employees pick up new skills easily and do not need guidance from an expert to perform the required task. Others, though, might struggle to learn the skill even with the help of a knowledgeable other.

By understanding the process through which people integrate new information and skills, you can tailor training to each individual to ensure that they are making progress efficiently. At the same time, it can help you learn more about each of your employees and where their strengths and weaknesses might lie. With this information, you can ensure that each worker is positioned in a role that suits their current career development level.

What Are the Potential Challenges of the Zone of Proximal Development?

Training a Group of Employees

Though the zone of proximal development can be a useful concept when considering the skills and abilities of your staff, there are some challenges presented by the theory.

  • It isn't always easy to determine and track each individual's unique zone of proximal development.
  • A supervisor or manager with too many employees might struggle to understand each individual's zone of proximal development– particularly as they change over time.
  • Not all organizations will have the time and or resources to dedicate necessary attention to each employee's development in this way.
  • Following through with scaffolding takes organization and attention.
  • Carrying out scaffolding requires cognitive flexibility over time.

Take a look at this guide to learn how to create an effective training and development process.

Effective Soft Skills Training For Your Employees

While training programs often focus on essential hard skills necessary for employees to fulfill their responsibilities, the importance of soft skills training shouldn't be overlooked. Beyond the nuts and bolts of the skills needed to perform a task, soft skills help make great employees and incredible teams.

Working to improve your employees' soft skills can boost employee retention, productivity, and sales while also improving customer satisfaction and strengthening the bonds between team members.

Employee Soft Skills Training

Each employee learns differently and starts with unique knowledge and skills. For this reason, the zone of proximal development can be a useful theory when initiating any training program.

If it's time for you to institute a new soft skills training session for your employees, you'll want to take a look at our Reproducible Training Library. Fully customizable and reproducible, this flexible system contains complete course materials and step-by-step instructions for facilitators.

Do you have any questions about the zone of proximal development, other learning theories that can be applied to your business, or anything else related to the topic? If so, you're always more than free to leave a comment below, and we will respond as soon as possible. We are always happy to answer any questions you might have, and we'll do our best to respond to comments within a day or two.

Additionally, if you have any questions about how our products might be able to help your company, we'd absolutely love to help! We would be glad to give you any information that could assist you in making a knowledgeable and informed decision.

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.