How We Learn: When It Comes to Acquiring a New Skill, Look at a Russian Psychologist’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’

Learning, as it is often said, is a life-long endeavor.

Whether a person has finished formal schooling – college, graduate school, or even completing high school or a trade school – does not mean that a person’s learning is done. Indeed, curious individuals continue to push themselves throughout their lives to acquire more knowledge, sometimes for the sake of learning for the sake of learning or sometime to acquire a new work-related skill.

Whether a person’s motivations for learning might be, there are great education models for how to accomplish this.

The Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, is best known for his “Zone of Proximal Development,” to put simply, a model of how individuals best learn. According to Vygotsky, there are three areas, or zones, where a learner my find themselves. They are:

  1. Things the Learner Can’t Do at All
  2. Things Learner Can Do without Help (This is the “Zone of Proximal Development.”)
  3. Things the Learner Can Do without Help

According to Vygotsky, all learners move through these phases when acquiring a new skill. It remains important because whether a person decides to learn, say, computer programming, or if someone decides to take guitar lessons, the process is the same despite the content being different.

“Vygotsky explained that children learn best, and are most motivated, when the material they are learning is just beyond the reach of their abilities,” writes Adam Alter. “In the classroom context, this means a teacher guides them to clear the hurdle presented by the task, but not so heavy-handedly that they feel their existing skills weren’t useful in reaching the task’s solution.”

In the quote above, although Alter is talking about learning in a classroom context, this may also apply to those taking one-on-one instruction (like guitar lessons) or if the person is self-taught. The bottom line is that it is important to keep these stages in mind when learning even outside of a classroom context. These days, lots of people learn new skills using YouTube or other video tutorials, and arguably, Vygotsky’s ideas would apply.

“[A person] just needs some structure, clues, reminders, help with remembering details or steps, [and] encouragement to keep trying . . .” writes author Anita Woolfolk. This apparently appears true for children and adults alike.

Finally, what Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” shows is that we all most through stages as we learn a new task. Keep this in mind – and don’t give up – when you decide to take on a new challenge.


Atler, A. (2017). Irresistible. The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. Penguins Press. New York, NY.

Wollfolk, A. (2007). Educational psychology. Pearson. New York, NY.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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