Beyond the Comfort Zone: Outdoor Education and the ZPD

Imagine a cleared space in the forest and a circle drawn with a rope; “This is your comfort zone – the space where you are confident and at ease. This you can already do. We all have our comfort zone. It takes many shapes and it is different for all of us.”

Then another rope makes a circle around the first. The ring between the inner and outer circle is the “stretch zone’ – the area of discovery, growth and risk – the space into which we must all step if we are to try something unfamiliar and expand our comfort zone. Beyond the stretch zone lies the panic zone – a place where no-one wants to be. With these simple concentric circles the outdoor education leader has established the common ground that connects all of us as unique learners.

Outdoor education can take many forms and include many activities – high ropes, low ropes, raft-building, orienteering, night walks, star-gazing – but it is always challenge by choice. There is no place for coercion or public shaming. The cry “enough “ or “I prefer not to’ is perfectly OK but there is a commitment to contribute… there are challenges for everyone, and everyone is part of the team. The activity relies on that participation. Outdoor education is not a test of physical fitness or endurance. It is about choosing to take a step out of your personal comfort zone and into the unknown, and about what it means to trust and be trusted.

There is a theory in the world of education that I have always found helpful in understanding this process. Lev Vygotsky, a young Soviet psychologist working in a race with the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1934, developed ideas that have proved illuminating and influential. Ironically, two years after the publication of his work it was repressed by Stalin and remained unknown for 20 years. It did not find its way into English translation until eight years later in 1962. This is not a place for an extensive discussion of Vygotsky’s many contributions to cognitive psychology but his central theories are worth introducing. His concepts of the zone of proximal development; of the role of the teacher in learning; and of the essentially shared and social nature of the learning process have much to tell us.

Vygotsky investigated problem solving, and how the mind goes about acquiring and mastering new skills and knowledge. According to Vygotsky the learner has two areas of development. The current area of development encompasses all that the learner can do independently – those skills and that knowledge that are within our grasp and compass. The “comfort zone” – if you will. Beyond that area lies what he termed the zone of proximal development, or zpd – those skills, knowledge and abilities that are within our reach but not yet grasped.

Learning he claimed is an essentially social activity. The role of the teacher is not that of simplifying new knowledge and doling it out in measurable doses, but of providing new content, and the context within which the learner may safely step from the current level of understanding to a higher level. In this model the learner and the social situation are interdependent and the teacher is the skilled mediator. The teacher’s role is to act – in Vygotsky’s phrase – as the “loaned consciousness’, as one who is able to help students on an as-needed basis and to introduce the content and create the context. It is very easy to observe this process in outdoor education. The learner, confronted with a challenge- say rappelling, works out how to accomplish the task. The support of peers and the guidance and security of the loaned consciousness of the teacher enable the learner to take the risk of stepping out and trying something new.

Collaboration, trust, risk-taking and team work are as important in the classroom as they are on adventure trips. Outdoor education helps to build the trust and relationships on which so much learning and growth depends. Going beyond the comfort zone is what artists and entrepreneurs and independent thinkers do all the time.

It can also be a lot of fun.

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