Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is a model that describes a problem solving strategy, supported by adult guidance, or in collaboration with more confident or able peers. Vygotsky argued that what children are capable of doing with the assistance of others is far more indicative of their mental development than what they would ever be capable of achieving on their own. Initially, both child and teacher struggle to understand each other within the zone. Knowledge is constructed jointly between the teacher and the child. Regardless of the number of times teachers describe the objective of the instruction,it is likely that the child will not fully understand it until s/he has learnt the specific skill, concept or strategy. The question for teachers, then, is how do we get there? Vygotsky advocated the gradual release of responsibility model as a means of achieving student understanding and taking them to a higher level of achievement.
Initially, the teacher assumes a high level of responsibility for modelling or explaining a concept in the learning. The teacher acts as the “expert other”, demonstrating the skill at a level slightly above students’ current level of understanding. The next stage is characterised by the teacher and students co-constructing the skill or concept; students receive the opportunity to practise the learning and receive constructive feedback from the teacher. Finally, students assume all, or almost all, the responsibility for the work. This is known as the gradual responsibility model and scaffolds the learning for students carefully. The hardest part for teachers is getting the level of challenge right so that it within but not beyond the reach of the students. Careful modelling, demonstrating high expectations, means that learning cannot be left to discovery; teachers need to structure learning at the right level, supporting students through conversations, modelling and active participation in the learning process.