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The Zone of Manageable Awareness

For many years the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) has been part of the theory and practice of CAT. The idea comes from the pioneering Russian educationalist Lev Vygotsky writing and working in the 1920's and early 1930's. It is mostly used as an exhortation or reminder to the therapist to be in the educational sweet spot of the therapy and just ahead of where the client's capacity to think and relate to their own experience of themselves is. When the therapy session has moments in the sweet spot of educational ability then what the client does with the help of the therapist in the session in on the threshold of what they can do with friends, or family, or on their own between sessions. This double lesson of learning how to do something for one's self along with learning what to do

Vygotsky's thinking applied most to learning a new area of knowledge such as maths. So for example, having got the gist of adding up, the child, with help from a more experienced (and mathmatically advanced) tutor or mentor might be ready to take on subtraction but not multiplication. The tutor needs to be just ahead of, and within the reach of, the child's existing competence, it calls for an accurate reading of the child's current level of ability and development and the 'nearly there', the reachable, or proximate level of understanding and skill that, with help, they can stretch themselves into.


It requires a cognitive empathy or sensitivity to the task and the ability involved. What always to my surprise is not included in Vygotsky's idea of the ZPD are the relational and emotional dynamics. What part does the anxiety of the learner or the warmth and validation of the teacher or mentor play? how much does what is being learnt and intrnalised depend upon how it is being engaged with? It has always felt that a more multi-dimensional view was needed to see the dynamics and processes of learning and change when applied to therapy.

i also wanted to take into account the readiness of the surround life space of the learner, the atmosphere at home or with friends and parterns. This is where the dialogic view of CAT comes in.

From a more multi-dimensional and relational view necessary to CAT the limits of the ZPD idea are that it is a linear theory of learning and development. It doesn't take into account the added motivation for learning that might come from a mentor who is side by side and nurturing versus one who is challenging and impatient. It doesn't consider the relational space in interpersonal or attachment terms at all. From a CAT point of view, there is in any moment of development a three-dimensional ZPD of being interpersonally, educationally, and socially in the zone and stretch learning at a suitable pace. For example, the mentor might be holding the learner back by not noticing their readiness for the next level of learning. Or the learner might make a breakthrough in understanding but at the price of feeling inadequate and inferior or overly mollycoddled and protected by the emotional and interpersonal stance of the mentor. At a social level the language, class, ethnicity, and gender of the mentor vis a vis the learner will be informing the ZPD.


An amended way of describing this zonal interplay between what is learnt ( a step up from adding to adding and subtracting) and how it is learnt ( a validating, playful and curious relationship between child and mentor) is to see both as developmental elements of knowledge that can be internalised and replayed by the child. This amended zone would be cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and social. To stress the interpersonal and relational dimensions of the learning experience and possible ruptures or threats to it (the child might be seeking approval and their learning capacity be hijacked by anxiety or over attention to the emotional stance of the mentor) a better looser and more dialogical phrase might be the Zone of Manageable Awareness.


Since I have began using this phrase I have found that trainees in psychotherapy and clients grasp it immediately and warmly. It seems to be validating, non-judgemental and giving permission to go at your own pace. For interpersonal interactions and relationships, the Zone of Manageable Awareness can refer to the space within, between, and around the learner and mentor in a given context and at that given moment. It is variable, local, and contextual. It is the zone in perceptions of each other's thinking and feeling, what is said and voiced or not said, voiced or done. it is the noticing, naming, and negotiating of appropriate self-disclosure and a balance between being open and transparent while also maintaining a level of privacy or personal boundaries.


I have specifically found that mapping as we talk helps us have conversations with the ZMA as we can say where we want to go or dont feel ready to and this conversational mapping creates a scaffolding that can hold both the learning journey and the learning relationship within and between us. If I am not ready to bring something into awareness or when it does come into awareness I manage it in familiar restrictive or avoidant ways then that is interesting and as those breakthroughs that take new discoveries consciously and manageably.


Within this zone, there is space for a sense of connection and understanding and an experience of sharing enough information to develop communication and build rapport without feeling overwhelmed by exposure and withdrawing or shutting down intellectually or emotionally. It implies a healthy educational and emotional level of self-disclosure and mutual awareness between individuals. In that the zone of manageable awareness is in the space between us as well as within us it points to a more open and multi-layered two-person psychology rather than the narrower idea of the ZPD which although pointing to the dynamics of learning relationship is located in the individual psychology of the pupil or student.


I have not found this phrase being used anywhere else so try it for size, see where it might take you. Of course, as ever in the world of psychotherapy any idea builds on the wisdom and creativity of our predecessors and the Zone of Manageable Awareness would not come to mind without the Zone of Proximal Development having laid the ground before it.


The zone of managable awareness is a realtional space within between and around us.


Vygotsky. L.S., (1936) Mind in Society (see also Wikipedia)

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