NOTE: This is a reworking of an article originally published in Gifted, the NSW Association for Gifted and Talented Children Journal


Educational research often makes much of Vygotsky's theory that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span which he calls the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD). Furthermore, Vugotsky claims, full development during the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD) depends upon full social interaction. In addition, Vygotsky argues that the range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone.  Thus, he argues, learning is most effective in a social context. (Shabani 2010) according to Vygotsky’s theory,the "zone of proximal development" can be defined as the optimum range for effective learning to take place.

The “ZPD” is a ‘challenge’ area situated just beyond what the student knows or can do now but not so far beyond as to be impossible to reach. Using the analogy of a high jumper, the ZPD would involve raising the bar high enough above the jumper’s current ‘personal best’ to present a meaningful goal and challenge, but not so far that it becomes a seeming impossibility and the jumper gives up.  

Central to such a philosophy of learning is the belief that academic self-esteem rises from successfully meeting a challenge. (Gross, 2000). However, a more recent focus on achieving educational equity by holding high expectations for all children in order to ‘close the gap’, would argue that assuming what is impossible for a learner may create self-fulfilling prophesies as such students are not provided with the opportunity to meet some challenges (to avoid their possible failure).

A better approach it is argued (See Dwerk et al) is to set high expectations for all students, and to teach them the thinking routines necessary for success. Harvard University’s Project Zero has been a leader in this approach of evidenced based, research into effective teaching for over 50 years. See

The challenge for teachers who accept the concept that every student can achieve and learn with the right guidance, is to identify:

  • Where each student is at the beginning of each year;
  • Where their area of challenge might be (their "zone of proximal development");
  • The most effective ways of guiding students to meet these and other (especially unexpected) challenges.
  • What Thinking Routines or learning Strategies might be useful?

This is important for the effective learning of all students but VITAL for students with Learning Difficulties or deficits, and Gifted and Talented students.


DeGiglio K., &  Greenslade, D., (1994), Towards Collaborative Learning, Department for Education and Children’s Services: Adelaide.

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: A Theory of Multiple Intelligences Basic Books: . New York

Gross, M.  (2000). “Recognising and Responding to the Underachievement of Gifted and Talented Students” Paper presented to the Excellence in Teaching and Learning 2000 Conference, Perth WA, January 24

Harvard University (2019) Project Zero,

Jordan, D. W., and Le Métais, J., (1997), "Social Skilling Through Cooperative Learning", in Educational Research, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 3-21.

MacLeod, B  & Targett, R, (2001) “Differentiating the Curriculum” Workshop presented Brisbane, June 21.

Marsh, C, (ed)., (1998), Teaching Studies of Society and Environment, 2nd Ed., Prentice Hall: Sydney.

Pittelkow, K (2001) Variety is the spice of life: multiple intelligence and the gifted  Gifted  NSWAGTA April , No. 118

Reis, S et al, (1992)  Curriculum Compacting Hawker Brownlow:Melbourne

Shibani, K., (2010) Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional Implications and Teachers' Professional Development, English Language Teaching, 3 (4),

Tomlinson, CA (1999) The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners  ASCD: Virginia

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