The Zones of Learning

anxious-girlWhen I was in the eighth grade, I took Pre-Algebra. Math had never been my subject, but I did okay. I started the class with the assumption I would continue as an average student. I was wrong. I found it very difficult to comprehend, in part, because I found the information boring and could almost feel my brain glazing over with each problem presented. I began to panic because I realized I was not going to do well on our first test.

I went to the teacher, who was young and male. I mention this because I think that it relates to my reaction to the response I received when I told him I was floundering. He smiled and said, “You’re pretty and will get married young, so you don’t need to worry about it.”

I was shocked. I was thirteen years old and the thought of telling my parents what he said was unthinkable. Particularly when he gave me a B on all my homework assignments and tests. How do you explain to your parents that you aren’t doing well when you are getting B’s, particularly when they are happy with C’s in this particular subject? I felt stuck and each day I found myself further behind.

I entered Algebra in high school truly terrified because I knew I was not prepared. My teacher and my parents could not understand my inability to perform when I had done so well the previous year. The results were disastrous, and I developed a lifelong fear of math from which I never truly recovered.

This story is, unfortunately, not unique. It happens when a student is unable to articulate a problem, and a teacher is unable to figure out the problem, or the teacher assumes it is a lack of interest or laziness on the student’s part. I should point out that I did very well in geometry, in a large part because my teacher was amazing, and, as it turned out, algebra was different enough from geometry that I didn’t need to understand the first in order to excel in the second.

zones-of-proximal-development-sm2One way to gauge a student is by using the zones of learning. The zones are an offshoot of the Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) developed by Soviet Psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky stated “the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning.”[1]  To do this, you need to know which zone they live in at any given time. The zones of learning, created by German Pedagogue Tom Senninger,  illustrate where we are psychologically in the learning process.

The three zones of learning have been adapted multiple times, and I am going to use my own terms here. They are:

zones-of-learning-smThe Comfort Zone: The comfort zone sounds nice. It is where you know the material, are comfortable with it, and possibly bored. In order to make it a learning experience, you must be challenged with new/additional materials or a way that will excite you to use the knowledge.

The Fear Zone (Also called the Panic Zone): This is the zone I was experiencing in my story. I was so afraid, I was unable to learn. My heart was pounding, my pulse was racing, and my body was producing chemicals that made it difficult to concentrate.

The Excitement Zone (Also called the Learning Zone): This is the sweet spot. Learners are enthusiastic, maybe a little fearful – and a little fear is a good thing – and they are paying attention. When you have learners in this zone, your job is much easier and the outcome is much likelier to be successful.

There are many ways to discover which zone your learners are inhabiting at any given time. Learning checks are one way to find out. Ask a series of questions about what they are challenged by, what they like and what they would like to do differently and why. Keep the questions non-judgmental and with no grade attached to the responses. If possible, meet with students regularly either face-to-face or by video to gauge their responses.

We are all subject to many experiences in life, as a child and as an adult, and each experience has an impact on our ability to learn. Knowing what zone the students are inhabiting is a step towards a better learning experience.



  1. Berk, L & Winsler, A. (1995). “Vygotsky: His life and works” and “Vygotsky’s approach to development”. In Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and early childhood learning. Natl. Assoc for Educ. Of Young Children. p. 24
  2. The Learning Zone Model

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