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The Zone of Proximal Discomfort: Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
Seth Risinger, Upper School Math Teacher
Zone of Proximal Discomfort

*Referenced from Neuroteach


You’ve just walked into AP Statistics after an exhausting AP US History test. The game tonight is against your biggest rival and you underperformed at practice yesterday.  Class starts with the following task:

In the next 5 minutes, gather statistical evidence to answer the following question:

Consider a population distribution where the proportion is 16. What is the probability of obtaining a sample proportion greater than 112 from a sample of size 60? Please show all the work necessary to justify the characteristics of your given sampling distribution.

Your time starts…NOW!

If you skipped the question, laughed it off, or imagined one of your least favorite teachers, your amygdala encouraged that response. If you took out some scrap paper, pulled ideas from your long-term memory, and dove right in, your amygdala encouraged that response too. (Also, if you love statistics enough to work on that problem, email me and come be a guest speaker!) So how can that same question elicit such different responses from the same part of the brain? Student stress, including my own course content, has a direct impact on engagement and retention. With select strategies and specific lesson design, I can create the right balance of stress to ensure that students are performing at their best.

A student’s limbic system, particularly the amygdala, is essentially an emotional filter. When under stress, the amygdala triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” response in all of us. In the book Neuroteach, this is referred to as downshifting. In this moment, the brain is diverting away from using the prefrontal cortex and is focused on “survival.” Your child is not getting chased by a dinosaur, but rigorous, academic content can still cause this evolutionary response.  While classroom safety (especially from dinosaurs) is always a priority, the authors of Neuroteach provide a number of factors that could contribute to a student “downshifting” such as:

  •     Fear of Failure
  •     Test-Anxiety
  •     A Lack of Personal Relevance

In these moments of downshifting, a student is limited in his or her ability to problem solve, engage in higher-order thinking, collaborate, and be active in his or her learning. So is the answer found by having our students feel completely relaxed in the classroom? Not exactly. Boredom is listed as the first contributor to stress that may trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Being mindful of student stressors, both in and out of the classroom, can help me provide an optimal learning environment. While I hope to limit the number of stressors on students, research suggests a limited number of stressors in a safe environment can support a student when dealing with future stressors. Finding the “right amount of stress” is known as the zone of proximal discomfort. In this state, a student’s performance and engagement are at his or her highest. The limbic system and amygdala again serve as the emotional filter, but the task is then diverted to the prefrontal cortex where higher-level thinking occurs.

Let’s circle back to our beginning statistics problem. Again, you may have immediately dismissed the task (and students do too). I’d like you to consider the following true story I tell to target the same learning goal and bring students into their zone of proximal discomfort.

Back in the fall of 2007, I was a college senior and anxiously awaiting the release of the video game Halo 3. As part of a marketing campaign, Mountain Dew offered a 1 in 6 chance of receiving an in-game reward. Thinking with my heart, and not my wallet, my roommate and I purchased 30 two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew in hopes of winning multiple times.

Take a moment: How many prizes do you expect me to win? Can you justify your decision? Will you sign my petition to boycott Mountain Dew on the grounds of their false advertising around a contest 13 years ago?

After opening all the bottles and redeeming the prizes, we had won only twice! In a moment of equal part shame and optimism, we went back to the grocery and purchased another 30 bottles. When all the damage had been done, there were 5 prizes from 60 bottles of Mountain Dew.

Take a moment: Are you suspicious of Mountain Dew’s advertised success rate? Do you have statistical evidence to support your claim? Will you sign my petition now?

Zone of Proximal Discomfort 2

This story brings everyone together (mostly to mock my lack of good fortune and financial irresponsibility), but it creates buy-in, engagement, and statistical conversation. Then we use die to simulate purchasing 60 bottles. Out of the whole class, there is often no one as unlucky as me. Each part of this lesson is designed to reduce stress to the correct amount, increase engagement, start a conversation in an effort to target the reflective function found in the prefrontal cortex. Ideally, this is the opposite of downshifting and Neuroteach lists a number of ways to drive a  student into his or her zone of proximal discomfort:

  •     Story-telling
  •     Personal Relevance
  •     Novelty
  •     Making Correct Predictions
  •     Achieving Challenges
  •     Movement
Zone of Proximal Discomfort 3

These strategies, and many others, allow educators to maintain academic rigor while maintaining a classroom culture of growth and learning. By limiting academic stressors, encouraging conversation through story-telling, and using regular low-stakes assessment,  I can create an environment centered on growth, questioning and academic risk-taking.

Zone of Proximal Discomfort 3