The Challenge Pit

“Learning should involve stretch, not strain.”
James Anderson

Tasks you can complete easily, with little effort, are in your Comfort Zone. These may be things you mastered a long time ago, or they may be new tasks, but they are simply “easy things you haven’t done yet”. The point is that when you’re in your Comfort Zone, the task is well within your current abilities. 

When you’re doing your best, you’re in your Performance Zone. In this zone, you bring all your current abilities to the task to achieve your best possible result. Your Performance Zone is your (current) peak performance. But, like your Comfort Zone, you only use the skills you’ve already got. They may be your most well-developed skills, but they are still the skills you already have. 

When you’re in the Comfort and Performance Zones, you’re challenging yourself to do more, not better. You might “accomplish” things and tick them off your list. They might even be important things. But these tasks demand nothing more of you than what you already have. You’re not growing.

To grow, you have to push yourself beyond your current best.

You need to stretch yourself and attempt challenges that are just beyond your current abilities. You must go into your Learning Zone.

Of course, when you are stretching beyond your current abilities, at first, you tend to fail. After all, if you could do better than your best, we’d call that your best! So, your Learning Zone is characterised by making mistakes and often failing. These mistakes give us information about how to move forward and learn. This is a perfectly normal part of the learning process. 

But not everything beyond our current best is in our Learning Zone. Only those challenges just beyond our current best are in this zone. When a challenge demands much more than our current abilities, when we are stretched too far and it becomes a strain, we enter our Aspirational Zone.

In the Aspirational Zone, the mistakes that occur make us scratch our head and they don’t inform our learning. They don’t give us enough information to see a clear way forward. We feel like the effort we put in goes up and up, but progress stops. 

Our Aspirational Zone is beyond our current reach. We can get there, eventually, but not in one go. We must build our abilities slowly and incrementally. 

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 is necessarily easy for students to understand or visualise.

The Learning Landscape - how to increase learner agency and become a lifelong learner

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, they haven’t climbed 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 the Challenge Pit.

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.

If you’d like to know more about helping students identify these zones in their learning and climbing higher in the Learning Landscape. I’d invite you to come along to my Learning Landscape or Growth Mindset Toolkit workshops near you.

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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