The origins of the natural learning cycle and Goldilocks Zone

The Goldilocks Zone, as we define it, builds upon a century of behavioral and brain research, starting with the zone of proximal development (ZPD).

learning_cycle_whiteBefore we get to the ZPD, l'll describe the natural learning cycle as we see it today. It's a cycle that involves setting a learning goal, making an effort toward that goal, receiving feedback, then setting a new goal based on that feedback. The "fuel" that keeps the cycle going consists of two kinds of chemicals released by the brain—opioids, which make you feel great when you acheive a goal, and dopamine, which makes you want to strive for more successes. When the learning goal is just difficult enough to pose a challenge and not so easy you succeed every time—just right—the cycle will keep operating indefinitely. I've added a video to the bottom of this post that explains this process in more detail.

lev_vygotsky In the early part of the 20th century, Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and educator, identified what he called “the zone of proximal development.” This is the zone that lies just beyond an individual’s current level of skill. By identifying this zone accurately, Vygotsky and his colleagues were able to help children learn more effectively—especially the most mentally disadvantaged.

albert_banduraThen, Albert Bandura discovered that tasks that are “just challenging enough” are more engaging and support more effective learning. And more recently, brain scientists have learned that experiencing an optimal level of challenge relative to success supports our brain’s motivational system via the dopamine (wanting) opioid (pleasure) cycle, and Aime Stahl, has added more fuel to the fire with her finding that surprising events—events that set up dissonance—appear to prime the brain for learning.

goldilocksThe evidence is in. We can't afford to ignore the motivational power of creating the amount of dissonance, challenge, or surprise that is “just right” for an individual in a particular learning context at a particular moment in time. Lectical Assessments are designed to help educators zoom in on the zone.


Berridge, K. C. and Robinson, T. E. (1998). What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience? Brain Research Reviews, 28, 309–369.

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