The Growth Zone concept in GPA

The concept of “learning in your growth zone” is important in GPA. Here’s a short summary from another GPA learner:

Greg Thomson developed the idea of the “Growth Zone,” based on Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development.” The basic concept is that people learn best when they understand most of the content they are exposed to, while being stretched with new material.

In other words, if all you’re hearing is a wall of noise and comprehend about 10%, not much of the other 90% will stick in your memory. If you understand nearly 100% on the other hand – engaging in small talk conversations you’ve had hundreds of times before, for example – you’re not growing.

Your learning “sweet spot” is the place where you’re understanding over 90%. Then the foreign 10% has a context in your mind already, stands out, and can be retained much more effectively.

— from 3 Concepts that Supercharged my Language Learning

Breaking it down

Interaction which is too complex — which pushes you out of your growth zone — is not very effective for learning. Why? Because the experience of trying to listen to communication outside of your growth zone is usually exhausting and stressful. Also, if you’re way outside your growth zone, you basically understand nothing.

On the other hand, communication which is only slightly challenging — when you understand more than 95% — is highly effective for learning. The experience of communicating in your growth zone should be enjoyable, and overall not too stressful (although you’ll be tired at the end of the day!).

Think about it: Adults (usually!) do this naturally and intuitively with children. We simplify our sentences and words. We have a rough idea of our child’s language ability, and we lower our speech to their level. However, we also continue to use words which they probably don’t know, in order to keep teaching them.

The biggest challenge for language learners is finding people who are willing to bend down, metaphorically, and interact with you in your growth zone. In the beginning, a new language learner is extremely hard to communicate with, since their growth zone and language ability is so small. Usually only paid language helpers will have the patience to do this. As time goes on, however, your language ability increases, and so your growth zone expands.

What does all of this mean for learning?

Firstly, traditional textbook approaches tend to push people way outside of their growth zone. You can tell this is happening when you find the entire class hard, and your brain is exhausted afterwards. Often, this is because textbook approaches are teaching multiple skills all at once – listening, reading, pronunciation, and grammar. The stress is high, and

Secondly, this is why learning language by “immersion” is not very effective. Your growth zone is so small and you are so hard to communicate with, most people will speak to you way above your growth zone. Of course you might learn a bit and make some tangible progress. But it will be very hard and tiring, and very hard to find people who are patient enough to have sustained conversations with you.

Thirdly, this highlights the importance of hundreds of hours of time with a committed language helper. You need someone who will spend lots of time with you in your growth zone, interacting and nurturing you, to help you grow.

The GPA activities are specifically designed to have increasing levels of complexity, so you can continue to interact in your growth zone — constantly learning, at a relaxing pace.