Controversy over the Comfort Zone Model? | A Response

by Ashley Denton, D.Min.

Comfort Zone: Model or Metaphor?

I recently read through an interesting research paper called, Comfort Zone: Model or metaphor? written by Mike Brown, of the University of Waikato (Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 12(1), 3-12, 2008). The paper has a lot of merit. It also raises some controversy as to whether the comfort zone model is still a credible model for facilitating outdoor adventures. Since this paper challenges a widely embraced theory in the field of experiential learning, I felt like there is a need for a response in defense of the comfort zone model. Yet my reasons for supporting the comfort zone model may surprise some wilderness leaders.

I remember when I started leading people on wilderness adventures in 1992 and someone introduced me to the idea that people probably have this thing called a “comfort zone”. That in essence, people need to be nudged out of their warm nest in order to discover they can “fly” (i.e. personal growth requires facing and overcoming our fears). Since then I have become even more convinced that the “Comfort Zone” model is a useful experiential learning tool for outdoor leaders to be aware of in facilitating adventures with people. I also believe that this model, can be supported not only in modern educational literature and empirical research, but also through studying adventure based learning theology.

Yes, One Can Take Comfort Zone Theory too Far

I first want to say that I really appreciate thoughtful folks like Mike pushing back a little on widely accepted norms to make sure that what was true in the past is still true today about outdoor educational theory. To start, I agree with Mark that, “behaviour in an adventure education context may be a poor predictor of behaviour in non-adventure education specific contexts. The placing of a student in a challenging position which elicits a particular behaviour does not necessarily mean that they are learning (Broan, 7).” I agree it is taking the “comfort zone” theory too far to assume that behavior observed in adventure settings will generally transfer to life back in one’s normal life routine. I believe follow up back in the city after a transforming adventure is especially needed to help the participant know how to transfer what they learned to their normal everyday life.

Yes, Emotional Risk is Hard to Assess & Outdoor Leaders Need More Training in How to Assess Emotional Risks

I also agree that emotional risk is hard to assess and that outdoor leaders receive far too little instruction in ways to assess emotional risk (Brown, 4).  I do however have a couple points of respectful critique to this paper: 1) Although wonderfully researched and quite compelling, this paper is almost exclusively concerned with “emotional risk” of participants. This is a perfectly valid and needed focus in adventure education, but there are other types of risk that in my opinion need to be equally considered before we dismantle or reframe “comfort zone” theory into a potentially toothless metaphor, i.e. physical risk, intellectual risk, relational risk, spiritual risk, etc. 2) An assumption underlying this paper is an argument from “silence” from participants, which in my opinion is insightful, yet not strong enough to give credence to discrediting comfort zone pedagogy altogether. Brown writes: “I suggest that the adoption of the comfort zone model and the assumptions that underpin it have less than desirable consequences in terms of student engagement, psychological well-being and emotional safety. As educators we hear the success stories and vocal affirmations but what about the silences and unspoken thoughts that are subsumed in the rush for appropriate closure of an activity? (Brown, 10, italics mine).” Although I appreciate and am personally challenged by Brown’s push for sensitivity toward people’s emotional risk quotient, an argument from silence does not outweigh the “success stories and vocal affirmations” that we do hear from participants. In fact I believe those success stories and vocal affirmations are often empirical evidences that support comfort zone pedagogical theory, rather than discredit it.

Reasons to Keep the Comfort Zone Model in the Outdoor Leadership Toolbox

I do not know Dr. Brown personally, but I would guess from his diligent research that we share a common desire to see participants challenged and transformed through adventure education.  And although I agree and affirm many of Brown’s important questions (like his exhortations that we need to assess emotional risk more appropriately), I would like to offer a perspective that may keep the comfort zone model in our toolbox as a valid pedagogy for those of us who are passionate about leading others in adventurous pursuits.

Ancient Educational Literature Worth Considering | How the Bible Supports Aspects of the Comfort Zone Model

I have been an outdoor educator for over twenty years, and I’ll just say at the outset that the perspective I will offer below might be pushed aside by some outdoor educators because it is based upon ancient literature rather than modern empirical research techniques, but nevertheless I think there is an important viewpoint that is often missed or ignored.

The abstract of this research paper states, “The perpetuation of this model which uses risk to promote situations of disequilibrium/dissonance does not find strong support in educational literature. It is therefore suggested that the comfort zone model be reframed as a metaphor, for possible discussion post activity, rather than being used as a model to underpin programming and pedagogy in adventure education settings.” I argue that one body of “educational literature” that is widely ignored in experiential learning and outdoor education curriculum is biblical literature. Some will dismiss my perspective because they might question the validity of the Bible, and although I am qualified to defend the Bible’s credibility as a reliable source of historical and educational import, this is beyond the scope of the point I want to make.

Now getting to the point. I recently published a book called, Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory, and Practice. In chapter 3, I present research from the biblical literature that supports the “comfort zone” paradigm as a model to, “underpin programming and pedagogy in adventure education settings” (to use the terminology from the abstract in conversation). I do not think that the comfort zone model should be relegated or “reframed” to “metaphor” status for several reasons, one of which I will present below.

A widely recognized theme in both the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the New Testament is how God uses trials to expand people’s trust. I concede that the term “comfort zone” is not used in the biblical literature, but even under the most rigorous scrutiny, the theology of trust-formation found in the Bible can be directly applied to the most common usages of “comfort zone” pedagogy. I will readily admit at the outset that my reasons for advocating the comfort zone model do not come from a desire to support Pannicucci (2007), or Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (these are helpful human psychological perspectives yet Brown challenges them fair enough). Rather I see the comfort zone model supported in the way God relates to Israel at times in the Old Testament biblical text, and the way Jesus Christ related to his disciples on some occasions in the New Testament. Below are two excerpts from my book that present some initial perspective on how the biblical literature (which in my view is credible educational literature that needs to be considered) addresses this idea of “comfort zone” pedagogy.

Trials Expose Unbelief

Plain and simple: trials expose unbelief and promote real belief. Time and again, belief is shown to be true or false in the wilderness, and trials are an instrument to expose whether we fear God or man. By removing familiarity, trials also have a way of expanding our comfort zones and keeping us humble. Following [God] is not a walk in the park all of the time. We all have rough edges that need to be rubbed off, and we all have sinful tendencies that are at odds with the desires of the Spirit. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. As we look at the theme of trials or testing in the Scriptures, it becomes strikingly obvious the wilderness is a favorite place for God to get our attention. [God] is after our fidelity to him, and through the trials of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai we learn that perseverance is an indicator of covenant relationship.

God intentionally tests us through various forms of resistance to establish our belief and integrity. Through the process we learn he is the One who sets the terms of discipleship, not us. When pushed, we might want to push back at God, but in his perfect wisdom he questions and stretches us in such a way that draws us nearer to him rather than causing us to run away. Job, Sarah, Abraham, Peter, and Paul are all prime examples of those who have learned obedience through suffering. Each went through a process of disorientation and re-orientation in the wilderness. As God adds the salve of grace to the struggle of our trials, he miraculously raises up servants who can transform nations. (Denton, 99)

Wilderness Stress Tests

Like a stress test given in a cardiovascular clinic or one given to a failing bank to see if they pass muster, Israel had to regularly go through a series of true or false tests so they wouldn’t fool themselves when the lab results turned up at their doorstep. It’s so easy to think we are okay when in actuality our soul is not well. Israel’s true or false tests in the desert either led them to repentance, or to a further hardening of the heart. They either responded to the test with a renewed trust, belief, and obedience, or they flatly ignored their prophets’ warnings to their peril.  The rebellion against Moses at Meribah is a prime example of a stress test that did not turn out well for Israel (see Exodus 17:1-7). Israel may have felt like they had a right to grumble against God because they were thirsty and tired in the Desert of Sin, but according to the commentary of this event in Psalm 95, this was a stress test that revealed their hardened hearts toward God:

Today, if only you would hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest” (Psalm 95:7-11).

As we turn to the New Testament, we have several instructive passages to consider. When Jesus stilled the storm in Mark 4:35-41, he questioned the twelve, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Although we can empathize with their fears, as the storm was about to capsize their boat, apparently their faith in Jesus as the Son of God was without excuse. This stress test brought their secret doubts out into the open. The twelve openly confessed their unresolved tension between belief and unbelief when they said, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him” (Mark 4:41). The wilderness is a place where unbelief is exposed and confronted so belief becomes possible. (Denton, 101-102).

Life Involves Risk and Opportunity | Playing it Safe Has Little Reward

In another Old Testament passage, Solomon states “Cast your bread upon the waters for after many days you will find it again (Ecclesiastes 11:1).” This essentially points out that life involves risk and opportunity. No one has any guarantees in life but this does not mean that we should play it safe.  Instead, Solomon’s wise counsel encourages people to take a risk, step out of our “comfort zone”, and seize the moment when opportunity arises. Imagine how emotionally risky it would be for a person to “share their only bread” with someone in need not knowing where the next loaf is coming from.  Or the risk for a person to invest significantly in getting an education or apprenticing someone in a trade with no guarantee that they will get a decent job when they graduate? Yet Solomon says, take the risk. Don’t play it safe. Step out beyond what is comfortable and predictable. It’s worth it! Here, Solomon, the wisest person who has ever walked the face of the earth, says: In God’s economy, yes wisdom is costly but remember that it reciprocates (i.e. the growth or reward you get in return is worth the risk of stepping out of your comfort zone). When a person takes the risk and honors God’s wisdom, wisdom will reciprocate and reward her:

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendor (Proverbs 4:7-9).

Risk and Trust are Inextricably Linked

Risk is coupled with trust in Solomon’s theology, therefore because one can trust God fully, she can live life with an adventurous spirit, always pushing the perimeters of her comfort with enthusiasm for life and more of life.

As I said at the outset, this only scratches the surface of examples in the biblical literature we could cite regarding the comfort zone theme, but I hope these short excerpts make my point satisfactorily. Thank you for considering this perspective that I believe gives proper and often overlooked weight to ancient biblical literature as a credible source for forming outdoor educational theory and pedagogy. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, I submit that the wilderness theme in the Bible has much to say about the widely embraced “comfort zone” and experiential learning theories, and it can be a source of wisdom and encouragement to modern-day outdoor education professionals who are looking for other historical literature to enhance their own research or form new theories all together.

About the Author of this post: Residing in Fort Collins, CO, Dr. Ashley Denton is the director of Wilderness Ministry Institute and the author of Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory, and Practice. He holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from University of Arizona, a Master’s in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Doctoral degree in Missions and Cross Cultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Involved in over 25 countries, he was formerly on staff with Young Life for 15 years and served as their National Director in New Zealand. He also serves as a professor of Outdoor Leadership at Denver Theological Seminary.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “Controversy over the Comfort Zone Model? | A Response

  1. I really appreciated your thoughts on embracing comfort zone, especially backing it up with a biblical foundation.

    It may be a nice idea to try to minimize the concept of a comfort zone to a metaphor but in all actuality it seems that is probably pretty unrealistic. Life simply dictates being pushed out of your comfort zone every day. Risks are inherent to relationships, jobs, vacations, decisions about where you will live and what you will do… without the risks we would probably end up severely isolated and shut up with in the confines of our homes. That may be kind of extreme but my point is that being pushed outside of your comfort zone is inherent to just being human, whether you factor God into it or not. Most of the things I value deeply, are core to who I am, are aspects of God I know — are because someone encouraged me to take a risk outside of my comfort zone. Those experiences have always been the ones that have shaped me most profoundly into the woman I am today. It is hard to even fathom my life, who I would be, and what I know of God without those risks.

    In fact, in our world today, I think the last thing people need is for someone to tell them to stay within the confines of their comfort zone – that is diminishing disservice on every level. The last thing people need is another excuse to remain selfish, set in their ways, and safe. I would even argue that what we need more of is for men and women to be pushed OUTSIDE of their comfort zones so they learn more about themselves, others, God, and what it looks like to live intentionally in this world. Being pushed to take risks forces growth in these areas more than anything else and in a world that desperately needs strong leaders, especially within the Church, then we better do everything in our power to help God shape them – which has to mean we have to push people out of their comfort zones and on to new terrain.

    I can agree that in situations where we are deliberately pushing people to step outside of their comfort zone, as experiential outdoor trips do, it is highly important that leaders have sufficient training as to the emotionality of it all. It requires a great deal of discernment, listening, watching, empathy, encouragement, etc. to asses someone’s emotional risk levels and push them in ways that do not create damage. There is a fine line between pushing someone outside of their comfort zone and them experiencing success, not pushing them enough so they miss out on a learning opportunity and experience, and pushing them too far so that they experience unnecessary stress or hurt. That is a skill we should not take lightly and should do a better job of teaching.

  2. The comfort zone is something that we naturally tend to gravitate towards, with it’s predictability and familiarity. When things are predictable and familiar to us we can count on them to be there when we need them. The problem that Alan pointed out is that learning happens outside of that comfort zone. I wonder how many people would be more willing to do uncomfortable things if they knew that they would gain knowledge in the process. I also like the fact that God is trustworthy and the implications that has for the learning process. While it is possible to be highly trained and experienced in the wilderness, it is impossible to be in control of everything. Many things can go wrong during even the most prepared for trips and it is important to remember that failure can have a positive outcome. The fear of failure is huge in our culture today where we are afraid to let others see us as failures or imperfect. I love the quote from the Mythbusters’ Adam Savage who said that “failure is always an option.” What if we approached life with such an attitude? How much different would we see things if we viewed failure as a learning tool rather than potential embarrassment? I know that I learn more from my failures than I do my successes. The comfort zone may look appealing to some, but it is a trap that hinders real growth in a person’s life. I doesn’t feel good when being out of our comfort zone until we look back at the last time we were challenged and recognize God’s work in our lives.

  3. Life is stressful and can therefore cause physiological and psychological damage. Hearing the alarm clock go off in the morning creates a level of stress. Sending the children off to preschool or kindergarten for the first time creates stress (for both the children and parents). Trying out a new recipe for the family dinner creates an uncertainty and stress. Commuting to work is stressful. There are few things in life that do not introduce some level of stress in one’s life.

    • Thank you Alan. These are some really helpful thoughts. I love your specific attention to the “trustworthiness of God” in the biblical narrative as a paradigm for leaders who push students’ comfort zones. Great thoughts.

  4. The comfort zone theory is one that I am personally familiar with as I have experienced it. Having gone through wilderness adventures that were designed to push the participants beyond where they were comfortable I understand the value in this. As a participant I was able to areas in which growth was necessary and as I pushed beyond what I knew in wilderness situations I was granted the freedom both to try and to fail in the world back home. This was largely due to the opportunity to grow together with the other participants long after the experience itself.
    One things I would bring up though is the idea of wilderness as a respite. There are times when wilderness experience is meant to push us beyond what we know and times when it should be used for rejuvenation. Despite the value of developing new skills or refining character qualities, the capacity of the wilderness goes far beyond this and should certainly not be confined to comfort zone models.

  5. As a college student who is minoring in Outdoor Leadership, and subjected to all of the outdoor activities it includes, I have had to really come out of my comfort zone. Looking back, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was and am actually very grateful for the people who pushed me to do things I NEVER would have considered doing otherwise. Thank you so much for writing this and reminding me that we are all supposed to get out of our comfort zone, even in what could seem as a mundane experience!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Kolette! I so agree with you… and there is a lot of research out there too that shows that when we push out beyond what we know we can do that new skills are developed… that’s how growth happens. Thanks again for your post.

  6. Thanks Matt, I appreciate your perspective! And yes, wow, especially with kayak instructing you have to really keep an eye on how folks are doing individually so that they can enjoy the experience without being pushed to the point of panic because they are beyond their level of skill.  Thanks again for your feedback.

  7. I have to agree that this model is a keeper. Edy has a good point in that the instructor to participant relationship is key. I think for some it can be hard not to use the model as a crutch of sorts. A good understanding of the student and how they learn is not always easy to obtain.

    As a kayak instructor it is key to constantly asses the “comfort zone” of your students throughout a day on the water and be in tune with people’s body language.

    Awesome Article!

  8. As a professionally certified snowboard instructor with 12 years in the field, I have a seemingly endless array of stories I could share regarding challenging a student’s “comfort zone.”

    An abbreviated summary … it’s an essential part of the learning process. A bona fide relationship must first be developed between the leader and the student so that the coach is able to properly assess the emotional state of the learner.

    Having appropriate escape routes or points of relief proved beneficial when taking students on terrain above their “comfort zone.” Or, having one-on-one, hands-on training tools to assure the student of their safety and success.

    It’s cool to think there is research a leader can study with regard to this and now publications and blogs to join in discussion. Lessening the learning curve for leaders is fantastic (I learned on the job through the school of trial and error).

    Thanks for your leadership.

    • Thanks Edy, I know you have an endless array of experiences that you could share on this subject! Thanks for chiming in, I appreciate your feedback and insight!

  9. Ashley – thanks for this article. As I’m reading, I’m remembering a freshman boy at last year’s adventure camp who couldn’t bring himself to rappel. Everyone was cheering him on from below but he just couldn’t make it happen. He was the only one of the group of 28 that didn’t. I’ll try to find a message for this year’s camp where I can talk about what you’ve said in this blog entry. I appreciate your insight.


    • Thanks Dennis for your story! I’ll never forget the first couple times I was shown how to rappel. I for sure didn’t want to do it, but somehow got over that first big step. I wonder if for some kids who are really struggling with it, if there is a way to get them started on a more gradual slope and then work them up to something that is steep… I know we don’t always have that option in the backcountry, but it could be a way to offer different levels of risk for some kids who are especially scared of rappelling. Another thought is that I’ve found rock climbing to be less of an issue for most kids because they can climb up a short distance and then if they need to be lowered its no big deal… there is something about climbing that makes us feel we are a little more in control than rappelling. So maybe giving a kid the chance to climb rather than rappel could help him feel like he stepped out of his “comfort zone” but at a level he could handle. All of is this is why I believe outdoor leadership is more of an art than a science for sure… there are no formulas:)

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