Getting Out of the Challenge Pit!

Setting challenging tasks is not enough to ensure real learning.

In the Learning Landscape, Pits represent challenges. But getting out of a Pit represents learning! Learning is an active, skilful process. In the Learning Landscape, the learners who reach the highest standards and ascend the mountains of expertise are the best climbers. They draw on many Habits of Mind and apply them to the most difficult challenges.

Each time a student climbs out of a Challenge Pit, they learn something new. But whether that challenge requires them to become a better climber or draw on their existing skills depends on the type of challenge they take on.

If the challenges we set students are Downhill Challenges or Performance Challenges, then getting out of the Challenge Pit is relatively easy. The student has previously demonstrated the climbing skills required for this level of difficulty. While the student may learn something new, it isn’t something more difficult. It requires nothing more of them than what they’ve done before. They don’t become better climbers.

The real challenge comes when students face Learning Challenges. Climbing becomes more difficult as learners attempt to reach greater heights. To succeed at these types of challenges, students need to become more skilful climbers.

The problem with setting students Learning Challenges is that many students lack the skills necessary to climb out of the Challenge Pit. In fact, if we are truly setting Learning Challenges, students should lack the necessary skills to succeed. As a result, many of our students slip and fall as they try to climb out of the Challenge Pit. Eventually, many either give up or seek an easier challenge.

Preparing for the climb! Filling your backpack with Habits of Mind

In the Learning Landscape, our repertoire of learning skills – our Habits of Mind – are stored in our backpack. When we face a challenge, we reach into our backpack to find the right “tool” to help us climb out of the Challenge Pit. If the Challenge Pit is more difficult than what we’ve encountered before, we won’t have the necessary tools, and we’ll need to fill our backpack with new ones before beginning the climb.

It’s the job of the teacher to fill students’ backpacks with the Habits of Mind necessary to succeed. There’s no point setting students challenging tasks without preparing them first. Otherwise, we set them up to fail. Teachers have a responsibility to identify the Habits of Mind that students will need to succeed at a challenge, then ensure they develop those Habits as an explicit part of the learning process.

Of course, this is a two-way relationship. Ultimately, we want students to leave school as highly effective learners, with bulging backpacks that allow them to tackle the most difficult of challenges. So, as skilful educators, we will often set a challenge specifically for the opportunity it gives us to fill a student’s backpack and help them become a better learner.

The little slips and falls, the mistakes we make along the way, can inform our learning journey. For some students, that’s enough to show them the way forward. But not for all. For most students, we need to prepare them for the climb by filling their backpacks.

As we’ve explored, one aspect of building Learner Agency is ensuring we understand the types of challenges that lead to growth. These are Learning Challenges – the ones that ask us to climb slightly higher in the Learning Landscape. But identifying these challenges, even wanting to engage in them, isn’t enough. To succeed at Learning Challenges, we need to fill our backpacks and become better climbers.

Ultimately, filling your backpack gives you the freedom to explore more and more of the Learning Landscape. With effective Habits of Mind at your disposal, you can set out to climb the highest peaks of the Learning Landscape.

Moreover, developing the metaphor of the backpack helps students understand that being an effective learner and achieving higher standards is about the actions they take to fill their backpack. They are in control of how well they learn. It’s not that some students are “naturally smarter” – it’s that some have spent more time filling their backpacks!

Next time you see a student struggling to get out of a Learning Challenge, ask yourself if you helped them fill their backpack before they got in.


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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