The Learning Zone: How Key Concepts in Education Can Guide Workforce Development

employee productivity
The following post was written by Rachel Robertson, Vice President, Education & Development at Bright Horizons.

Somewhere between a person's comfort zone and their panic zone is the place where optimal learning takes place. This is true for adults and children alike.

But somehow adults often forget that learning is a process. Early in life, people seem to intuitively understand that learning is a series of steps; but as adults, people can get hung up in the feeling they're supposed to understand it all. And that's where skill development can feel futile.

Leading Adult Learners from Unknown to Known

There are different terms used to describe how teachers think about and help navigate this territory: the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and scaffolding are some of the most common. The concepts remain relevant for a lifetime and can certainly be applied more broadly and lend themselves well to training in the workplace.


The Zone of Proximal Development is a model developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky; it identifies the difference between what is known and what is unknown. Imagine three concentric circles. The inner ring would be the "known," the outer ring would be the "unknown," and the middle ring would be the things between the known and unknown that can be accomplished with help or support.


On a construction site, scaffolding is the temporary structure used to support workers as they construct bridges or buildings. As learners, it's the support students get as they move from one level to the next.

This is the method an educator uses to cross the divide between known and unknown. So the job of the teacher (or the manager in this case) is to help the learner get from one point to the next incrementally, rather than expecting big leaps from one skill level to another.

Giant Leaps from Small Steps

For example, imagine the most basic skill - teaching a child to write her name. No educator would expect a child to go from grasping a pencil one day to writing fluidly the next; there are a number of steps in between that require support. Yet as adults, there's a tendency to expect ourselves and our employees to make exactly those leaps.

As adults, we shy away from being beginners and unrealistically expect expertise from the get-go. The reminder is that people learn best when their experience are scaffolded - or supported -- so they can build their skills one step at a time. In workforce development, it's what managers can give employees as they develop over the course of their careers.

Workforce the Zone

These are important concepts for educators and managers alike. Allowing someone to stay in his or her comfort zone is often the easiest for both teacher and student, or manager and employee. Alternately, pushing someone too fast and too much sends them right into a panicked "I must protect myself and I don't even want to try!" mindset.

It may seem odd to leverage lessons learned from preschool to move toward a successful career. But in our work at Bright Horizons, we know that learning has many areas of common ground throughout a lifetime. The key is knowing the three zones of the ZPD and intentionally scaffolding learning so people can be successful in the zone.
Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
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