Respect Learners' Zone of Possibility
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Respect Learners' Zone of Possibility

Meta-Design Principle

Professionals engaged in social learning want to present themselves in the best possible professional light, i.e. people will position themselves in different ways depending what they deem as the best way from the perspective of their professional role in circumstances of a particular situation. They do not want to expose themselves professionally. Also, professionals are being positioned by actors in their activity systems. Consequently, we are designing for a Zone of Possibility (ZoP). This means that we as designers need to be aware of potential multiple layers of power relationships when learners ask for or give social support or receive recommendations. First, encouraging professional learners to observe peer group interactions to build up a picture of the cultural norms of the group they are entering; assist construction of an online persona by building on the profiles of key peers who seem closely related (Santos, Cook, et al., submitted). Second, when professional learners interact, they connect to the cultural aspect of learning by bringing to light the alternative views held by other learners and the criteria used to interpret ideas. Third, enable professional learners to identify when authorities (actors) are positioning them within the group. In this way our tools mediate professional identity building through participation in a Zone of Possibility.

The ZoP sits within a Community of Practice (we are not designing for the latter) and may include one or more Circle of Trust or CoT (we need to be aware of the latter but our Feb co-design clarified that this is a user owned space; the CoT may be a hybrid of face to face and virtual, see 'Aim for Hybrid combination of physical and digital tools for flow (bridging) and focus'). What does concern us is that navigation and bridging is needed when moving around a ZoP and when positioning oneself or being positioned (see 'Aim for Hybrid combination of power and control in conversations') within the ZoP.

Theoretical background

Background theory is as follows. Positioning is viewed in recent Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (e.g. Daniels, 2008) as being in a systematic relation to the distribution of power and principles of control. Thus social positioning underlies practices of communication and gives rise to the shaping of identity. The implication is that a ‘subject’ inhabits a space of possibility, thus a subject would be represented “by a socially structured Zone of Possibility rather than a singular point” (Daniels, 2008, p. 164).

Tips (Challenges, Limitations, Tradeoffs, Pitfalls)

Vygotsky's (1930/1978) zone of proximal development (ZPD) is commonly understood as the range of practices which the learner cannot invoke on her own, but can engage in with the support of a more capable peer. When designing for social learning in professional context, you must always acknowledge and respect the existing social and organisational fabric which determines learners' perception of which practices will be appropriate. This is the Zone of Possibility (ZOP): the range of practices within the ZPD which the learner perceives as socially and organisationally acceptable.

Proposing any new practice outside the ZoP is doomed to fail. Thus:

Links to other principles and patterns

uplinks (more general)

downlinks (more specific)

sidelinks (interacting principles / patterns)


Daniels, H. (2008). Vygotsky and Research. Routledge, UK.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1930/1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Originally published 1930).

Author(s): John
Published at: 14 May 2015 06:26 GMT
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