Learning Zone Reflection Tool

How do we push the boundaries of the Learning Zone without dipping into the Panic Zone?

Active Experiments
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Purpose for Students
Make it Personal
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

We believe it's important to be in tune with your students' ambiguity tolerance. We must remember why our students are here.  For many d.school students, our courses provide an exciting, opt-in enrichment opportunity while they’re pursuing work in other fields.  These are not required courses for their degree.

Given this, we have a hunch that students’ ambiguity tolerance might be lower than those who have opted into design as a field (ex: Product Design undergrads).  As excited as we might be to take off the training wheels by removing a standard version of design process, we need to consider how this might push certain students into their panic zone.




On the last day of Design Thinking Studio (Winter 2019), we decided to try a different format for final reflection and course feedback. Throughout the course, we'd been experimenting with how much we could foreground design abilities and skills (versus any one particular version of a design process.) Our goal was to push students' comfort with ambiguity, and decrease their reliance on a "recipe" approach to design challenges.  

We found Tom Senninger's Learning Zone Model (a popularized model based on the learning science concept called the Zones of Proximal Development) a useful framework for our class. The basic zones are:

COMFORT ZONE.  Here things are familiar to us; we don’t have to take any risks. This is important, because it gives us a place to return to, to reflect and make sense of things. Because we use known skills and abilities to achieve known outcomes, there’s also not much room for learning.

LEARNING ZONE. Here the skills and abilities to achieve specific outcomes are not in hand—but are within reach. It can be an uncomfortable stretch. But it does not call for panic. And that is when we learn and grow. Exploring beyond the edge of our abilities slowly expands our Comfort Zone.

PANIC ZONE.  Here the overall feeling of panic inhibits us from developing new skills or abilities. It’s overwhelmingly uncomfortable here. Since all our energy is used up in managing/controlling our anxiety, there is no room for learning.We wanted to push students into the outer orbits of the Learning Zone without dipping into the Panic Zone.  

Had we succeeded in our class?  We decided to ask students directly by introducing a visual model of the Learning Zones, and then letting them (anonymously and independently) fill out this basic map worksheet.




Almost every student described experiences in all 3 zones.

We are still synthesizing our findings, but one idea that has emerged is the importance of "tethers" to the Comfort Zone.   Think of these like anchors or a safety net that build confidence and trust in facing ever-greater degrees of ambiguity.... like an astronaut tethered to a ship in outer space.  So far, we think there some essential tethers might include: Team, Tools (tangible), Time, Tales, and Transformation/Transfer. The more we seek to remove a singular process/recipe/roadmap of design, and advance ambiguity, the more intentional we need to be about designing really strong tethers.

Design Abilities Used

This activity requires students to reflect back on their experiences and classify them according to this learning framework.  This exercises both synthesis skills and an ability to take concrete experiences and abstract them into learning outcomes.


In addition to Tom Senninger's Learning Zone model and Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development model, we've also been inspired by Dereca Blackmon (Associate Dean and Director of DGEN at Stanford) and her “brave space” model.

Designed by:

Kelly Schmutte
Kelly Schmutte
Curriculum Designer and Lecturer, Stanford d.school + Founder, PerfectFit Pointe
Seamus Yu Harte
Seamus Yu Harte
Story Designer + Lecturer, Stanford d.school

Design Abilities Used

Synthesize Information
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
Learn More about Design Abilities 


This work is the original work of the Designer(s). It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

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