zoneKnowl-edgenoun: information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education.

The first part of this series focused on mental wholeness—how to achieve it and why it matters. That constitutes the M in the MAPS acronym. The next section focuses on the Aacademic and artistic wholeness.

There’s no Growth in the Comfort Zone

“Ewww! That’s gross!” one of my students said as she sliced along a herring’s lateral line with a sharp knife. I noticed that her curiosity outweighed her sensibilities, and she kept on cutting. The instructor at the Living Coast Discovery Center in San Diego directed the students to make their next cut, and I watched in amazement as each teenager followed directions, eager to discover why the fish had died.

The students poked, prodded, cut, pulled, and sliced. They used chemicals to measure pH levels, and eventually discovered the cause of death—not enough oxygen in the water. Their natural curiosity lead them to do things they wouldn’t normally do—dissect a dead fish.

They went out of their comfort zone, because they wanted answers. I thought for sure they would demand gloves for the activity, but they didn’t. Some of them overcame their timidity to ask the instructor (a stranger) questions.

I walked around as they dissected their herring, snapping photos and talking to them about what they had discovered. Secretly, I wished I had a herring to cut open, too. Even though dead things lie far outside my comfort zone, my curiosity bubbled over.

The goal of education lies not in acquiring a diploma (although that’s nice), but in learning to learn.

The goal of education lies not acquiring a diploma (although that's nice), but in learning to learn. #lifelonglearner Click To Tweet

Zone of Proximal Development and Learning

zoneBack in the late 20s and early 30s, Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky formulated a theory about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). It states that we learn the fastest when we study something that challenges us, but doesn’t overwhelm us. We should need some assistance, but not so much that we get discouraged.

I explain it to my students this way. When I go to the basketball court and try to shoot a free-throw, the ball doesn’t even make it to the backboard. Even if I shoot the ball 100 times, I will not make the basket. I will give up in defeat.

But, if I find a place on the court closer to the basket, I can begin to learn the proper technique from a coach (even one of my students). When I can make 10 out of ten shots, I can take a few steps back and apply what I’ve learned to try from further away. As I practice each day, I will eventually accomplish a free throw from the free-throw line.

By staying in my Zone of Proximal Development, I have challenged myself, but not overwhelmed myself. Learning stays fun, and I accomplish my goals more quickly.

How can we apply this concept to lifelong learning?

Finding Your ZPD

First of all, as adult learners, we have the choice of learning what we want to. So, do an inventory. Jot down a list in your journal of everything that interests you—go crazy! Include things that seem impossible to learn (for me? Chinese).

Next, circle three or four things that really pique your interest. Write them on a separate journal page, with lots of space in between each item. Start researching on the Internet where you could learn more about each topic.

Think about a budget, too. Do you have money to spend to learn a new skill? I’d love to learn how to parasail, but at this point in life, I don’t have money, nor do I have access to a place. I’d also love to get my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in writing, but I can’t afford that, either. Instead, I found a website called DIYMFA, where writers can find community that helps them do the same things that one would do in a MFA program, but for free.

Because learning takes time, think about your time budget, as well. How much time do you have to spend each day in learning a new skill? Ten minutes? Twenty? Sixty? Maybe you only have time on the weekends. Whatever the case, you need to stay in your ZPD. Where could you find the necessary time? Think about things you can eliminate from your life (like Candy Crush or that TV program) that do nothing to enhance it. Don’t commit to learning something new that causes conflicts with the quality time you spend with your family or your job.

After spending two years working in a school, Pedro knew he wanted to become a principal. He also knew that a principal’s job would take away from his time with our kids. Therefore, he waited until they started high school to go back to school to get his certification in educational leadership. He finished the same month that our youngest graduated from high school.

Nurture Yourself Takeaway #10—Take the time to choose something new that you’d like to learn more about, and research your ZPD.

Tomorrow I’ll share ways and places to assist you in your lifelong learning quest.


  1. Thank yo Anita. I am in the process of starting my own business and find that I have SO much to learn. So I am trying to figure out what I need to learn and when the best time is for that particular class or skill. This post is so encouraging. Also, I love what you say about there’s no growth in the comfort zone. That is so true but I really, really needed that reminder today. Thanks so much. I always enjoy reading your posts. Have a blessed day!
    Robin recently posted…Listen ~ A 31 Days of Five Minute Free Writes PostMy Profile

  2. Oh my goodness! I love these concepts and now I’m out of the classroom, I don’t use them in my retirement life. Now I’m in my ZPD for how to live as a retired person. Trying new routines until I find the one that works for me.

  3. i have missed some days along the way, this was great today anita…not that i was surprised:) you never disappoint. this series is awesome. i have stuggled along the way. i have gotten something up each day, but i’m not thrilled with each one. As i read your series and Karen’s, i am feeling my inexperience.
    i am recommending your series for sure for more detail. mine is covering more things medical, but not only medical. i decided you have the self care taken care of very well:) i’m learning a lot here.

  4. I had to read this when I saw the title. I learned about zone of proximal development when getting my Masters. Thank you for piquing my interest and touching on an area of education that will pique a student’s interest.
    Mary Geisen recently posted…Becoming EnoughMy Profile

  5. Remember all the dissections we did back in the day? To this day I’m not sure if we did them simply because Dad had an insatiable curiosity and wanted to instill it in us or if he was trying to ensure that one of us became a medical professional. If the first, he hit the target right on! I do so appreciate how I see the teachable (and learnable) moments in everything around me.

    Last year, when I took over for the librarian in the final month of school, the kids had to do oral book reports. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth because they had 3 pages of questions that they had to answer and then they had to get up in front of everyone and talk. There were many which barely fulfilled the requirements (and some who just didn’t). This year, I’m having them do booktalks instead. 1-3 minutes of interacting with the book on video; giving the reason they chose it (even if it simply that the colors on the cover attracted them), any questions they might have had when they started reading it, any connections they found in the book to their own lives…that sort of thing. I’ve had reluctant readers actually come to me and tell me that they’re excited about recording their booktalk! I think I’ve brought this into their ZPD. 🙂

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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