Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist came up with the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This “zone” represents the distance between where a child is at and where they can be. It’s the bridge between what's already known and what’s unknown; the link between an already-skill and a not-yet skill. It is in this zone where learning takes place.
The ZPD is part of Vygotsky’s Social Developmental Theory. The skills acquired in the ZPD result from interaction with others—specifically those more knowledgeable than us who can assist, guide, and encourage us. Vygotsky claimed that all development occurs via social interaction in which a “more knowledgeable other” scaffolds our learning experience.
The concept of scaffolding (though Vygotsky never actually used this term) isn’t limited to child development or educational psychology. It’s everywhere.
Teachers, parents, managers, CEOs, chefs, coaches, and college professors use it. We scaffold our children’s, employees’, interns’, athletes’, and students’ learning environments in a way that appropriately challenges them, steers them, and propels them from where they’re at to where we want them to be. We set them up for success when we carefully, and intentionally, structure their learning experience.
As Vygotsky pointed out, skill acquisition doesn’t happen in isolation. It doesn’t occur overnight, nor does it ever end. We find ourselves in various ZPDs throughout our lifespan, and therefore, scaffolding applies at any age.
In revisiting Abraham’s faith journey, I couldn’t help but think of Vygotsky’s ZPD. Between Genesis 12 and 22, God scaffolds Abraham’s experience. God doesn’t start off asking Abraham to sacrifice his yet-conceived son. He starts by asking him to relocate. There are steps, people, and encounters between Haran and Isaac that develop, encourage, and guide Abraham’s faith. These experiences, this scaffolding, were vital to developing the obedience Abraham displays in Genesis 22.
I believe God scaffolds our learning as well.
Case in point: Me, in the following 4 areas.
Me: “I will never teach.”
God: “I want you to teach.”
Me: “I don’t know how.”
God: “Start teaching a bible study.”
Teach bible study for a year ✔
Teach trial run online class for Aspect Ministries ✔
Get advice, encouragement, and spiritual insight from endless people about teaching (more knowledgeable others) ✔
Apply to and get offered an adjunct position at FPU ✔
Teach 1 class ✔
Teach 2 classes ✔
Teach 4 classes ✔
Teach 13 classes ✔
Possibly apply for Ph.D. ✔
Me: “I will never share my writing with others.”
God: “I want you to share your writing.”
Me: “No, that’s too vulnerable.”
God: “This is another area where I want you to practice vulnerability.”
God: “I’m not asking you to write for Huffington Post, but start sharing.”
Start a blog, make it private, and tell no one about it ✔
Make the blog public and tell no one about it ✔
Tell people about blog ✔
Write a small article for publication ✔
Write another small article for publication ✔
Share writing with students ✔
Possibly write a book ✔
Me: “I will never preach.”
God: “I want you to be open to the possibility.”
Me: “I’d made a terrible preacher.”
God: “I’m not asking you to preach in front of a 10k congregation, just start accepting opportunities that come your way.”
Read book on effective preaching ✔
Accept youth group pastor’s invitation to speak at the end of the year ✔
Me: “I never want to get married again.”
God: “I want to ransom you from relational exile.”
God: “First, I’m going to teach you what vulnerability really looks like.”
Me: “I thought I knew what vulnerability was, but alright.”
God: “You don’t, and because of this, you struggle with relationships and picking good men, so start dating. You need the practice.”
Read books about vulnerability ✔
Return to therapy for tune up sessions ✔
Practice vulnerability with trusted friends and family ✔
Date 3rd tier men ✔
Date 2nd tier men ✔
Still dating 1st tier men ✔
In looking at my experiences, it seems that when God wants his children to learn a much-needed skill or lesson, he sets up situations in which to exercise these. When he desires us to move toward further understanding and maturity, he brings new experiences and “more knowledgeable others” to help guide us. When he wants us to acquire and use our gifts for his glory, he provides opportunities to start practicing. God knows we won’t magically meet our goal or learn a new skill without first makings steps and approximations toward it.
God meets us in the ZPD, and as the More Knowledgeable Other, his scaffolding takes the form of gentle nudges, loving prods, and patient guidance.