The zone of proximal development: how the theory translates to the classroom

Theories of proximal development and social contagion suggest that group activities enhance knowledge-sharing and internalisation through feedback, discussion and the development of skills, writes Shwetha Mudabagilu Krishnappa

Shwetha Mudabagilu Krishnappa 's avatar
8 Jul 2024
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In the workplace, students get frustrated by the lack of guidance they receive. If you give them a textbook, they can learn almost anything. But at work, there are no textbooks. Real-world problems are complex. You can’t teach people what they’ll be doing in three years or even next year because you don’t know what job they’ll be doing. What you can teach them is what’s happening today and critical thinking skills to navigate the complex challenges of modern business. However, helping students apply lessons learned in class to real-life situations can be challenging. 

What is the zone of proximal development?

Learning is a social process. A higher level of thinking occurs in social-interactive contexts when individuals evaluate and form their knowledge through interactions. According to psychologist Lev Vygotsky, each person goes through two stages of skill development: what they can achieve on their own and what they can accomplish with the guidance of an experienced mentor or teacher. The zone of proximal development is the difference between a person’s current level of independent problem-solving and their potential level of problem-solving with adult guidance or help from a more skilled peer. 

The complete development of the zone of proximal development depends on social interaction (contagion). Social contagion is a process by which attitudes, emotions and behaviours spread through social networks. It can occur through various channels, including face-to-face interactions and via social media. The theory suggests that multiple factors, including the strength of social ties, the frequency of contact, and similarity of attitudes and behaviours can facilitate social contagion. Social contagion can occur among students, between students and faculty, among faculty members and between students and industry experts.

Students can only learn so much by discovering things on their own. Theories of proximal development and social contagion suggest that group activities enhance knowledge-sharing and internalisation through feedback, discussions around challenges and the development of skills. To progress, students need to work with teachers or mentors who can help guide them in their quest for knowledge and new skills. The question is, how can you enhance students’ proximal development through social contagion? 

Modify the curriculum

Before the first class, understand your students’ majors, career aspirations and goals through surveys or conversations. Design the curriculum using relevant case studies that align with their career interests. Understand the expectations of businesses and graduate schools by connecting with industry professionals and alumni to incorporate essential skills and knowledge into your learning outcomes. Gain an understanding of the market and the expectations of employers and schools by connecting with professionals and asking what they wish they had learned as students. Speak to alumni about what would have helped them better prepare for their careers.

Let students take ownership

Move away from a formalised structure where the teacher is always at the front of the class presenting. You can encourage students to co-create and co-teach some lessons by providing cases for students to teach each other to enhance their understanding and cultivate a positive attitude toward the subject matter.

Focus on real-world problems 

Partner with local employers so that students can solve real-world business problems. Match students’ preferences and skills with organisational challenges to ensure successful interactions. You can either preselect clients and projects for students to choose from or allow student teams to find and define their projects and provide support. Provide clear project definitions for all teams for a fair assessment. 

Provide a safe environment

Conflict within teams is inevitable, but minimise the risk of it by establishing ground rules and encouraging open, judgement-free discussions. Discuss complex issues without obvious solutions and allow students to share ideas using an anonymous evaluation form. If someone says something inappropriate or triggers another person, try scheduling a follow-up conversation with a small group or one-on-one. Check in with students frequently and provide them with prompt feedback. Finally, bonding activities such as “find someone who…”,  role-play games and short videos help students get comfortable with each other and establish trust.

Promote group work and collaboration

Group work creates opportunities for students to learn how to collaborate, communicate effectively and take on leadership roles. Allow students to select and form teams or randomly assign students to groups. Let these work together throughout the course to complete assignments, grapple with complex problems and conduct research. Have students share regular feedback to ensure you are planning the activities that make the most out of their skills and interests. Support and encourage students to join relevant clubs that promote learning outside class hours.

Create opportunities for authentic practice

Allow students to engage in activities that reflect real-life challenges. Incorporate simulation, role-play games and problem-based and project-based learning. Invite industry practitioners to your classes to talk about the roles and challenges in their industries. 

While prioritising skills such as critical thinking and creativity, it’s important not to overlook fundamental content and skill acquisition. Just as composing music requires a basic understanding of musical instruments, participating in class discussions requires a rich knowledge base and contextual framework. The focus should always be on how to integrate theory into practice, providing more meaningful learning for students, and ensuring they are well prepared for real-world applications.

Shwetha Mudabagilu Krishnappa is an assistant professor at T. A. Pai Management Institute, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

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