Challenge Pits – Which Zone Are You in Today?

True learning doesn’t happen without a challenge. We must stretch (not strain) ourselves to increase our standards and abilities. As Anders Ericson points out, if you never push yourself beyond your current best, you will never improve.

When we challenge ourselves to achieve just beyond our current best, we go into what is sometimes referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development. It’s that area just beyond our current ability. We’re in this zone when we aim at a slightly higher standard, one that is currently a little too difficult for us. I refer to this as the Learning Zone.

On the other hand, when we challenge ourselves to do our current best, to reach a standard we’ve achieved before, we are in our Performance Zone. This level of challenge only exercises our current abilities. The intent is to reproduce our highest standard, as error-free as possible.

Our Comfort Zone represents an amount of challenge that isn’t really challenging at all. In this zone, we do something we’ve previously mastered or something we already possess the skills to master easily.

Then there is what I call the Aspirational Zone. This is when the level of challenge is too far beyond our current abilities to achieve in one go. It’s where we might go in the future, but first, we need to break the challenge down into smaller, achievable challenges to get there.

Understanding which zone we are in and being able to accurately target our Learning Zone is a critical part of developing Learner Agency.

Being able to distinguish between our Comfort and Performance zones, being able to identify when a challenge is in our Aspirational Zone, and knowing when we should target our Learning Zone – and being comfortable doing that – are all aspects of becoming a better learner. But none of them are necessarily easy for students to understand or visualise.

This is where the Learning Landscape is so powerful. It gives us a way to visualise increasing difficulty and the type of challenges we face. In doing so, it helps us become better learners and builds our Learner Agency.

In the Learning Landscape, height represents difficulty. The higher you go, the more difficult a task is. Experts are the ones who have climbed the highest mountains; they stand atop the highest peaks of expertise. Beginners are in the lowlands, having not yet climbed very high. Year after year at school, we climb higher in the Learning Landscape.

This immediately gives us a sense of what our learning journey looks like. We explore different parts of the Learning Landscape as we cover new topics and learn more. To get better, we must climb higher and learn to do more complicated things. For example, Year 10 is much higher in the Learning Landscape than Year 1. University and higher degrees are higher again.

To climb higher, to raise our standard and master things beyond our current ability, we must face challenges. In the Learning Landscape, challenges are represented by Challenge Pits.

Keep in mind that height represents difficulty or standard. Where we stand is our current standard. We can then map our current standard against zones in a Challenge Pit like this:

This gives the learner a way to visualise each step in their learning journey. Climbing higher means students must work in their Learning Zone. If they don’t, they can only ever learn more, not master something more difficult.

Importantly, this also gives us a way to describe the different types of challenges. In the Learning Landscape, and in life, not all challenges are the same. Some are easy and do not give us height. Only Learning Challenges give us height.

In next week’s blog, we’ll explore four different types of Challenge Pits – each with very different impacts on our learning.


James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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