There are only two types of learning: More or Better

In my mind, there are only two types of learning: learning to do more or learning to do better.

As educators, it is critical we recognise these two very different types of learning. Moreover, we must ensure our students understand the difference between the two and that we nurture their relationship with learning to do better.

Let me explain.

As I’ve written before, at some point, most of us experience learning like this:

The early stages of learning are relatively quick and easy. As time goes on, challenges become more difficult. Progress slows, then eventually stops. When progress stops, we’ve reached what “the expertise expert” Anders Ericsson refers to as our Performance Plateau.

Colloquially, the Performance Plateau is referred to as “the bar”. Each person’s bar is set at the limit of his or her current abilities. It’s the point where our learning behaviours – our Habits of Mind – are matched by the difficulty of the tasks we attempt. We are at our (current) limit.


To “raise the bar” means to attempt something more difficult, something beyond our current limit. Ericsson calls this area just beyond our current best the Learning Zone. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) also referred this area as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

Everything below the bar is within our current abilities and is, therefore, easy. This is our Comfort Zone. The further below the bar we go, the easier the task and the more comfortable we are.

Learning something that is below the bar is easy. You don’t need to improve the way you learn to succeed below the bar. When you’re learning below the bar, you’re only doing “more things”, not doing more difficult things.

On the other hand, to succeed at a more difficult task, those tasks above the bar, we need to develop our Habits of Mind. In short, succeeding in our Learning Zone requires us to not only learn new things, but to become better learners.

And this is what I mean when I say there are two types of learning: learning below the bar, which only requires you to do more, and learning above the bar, which requires you to do better.

Last week, I introduced you to the Five Elements of Effort. How students respond to being in their Learning Zone is the first of those five elements and is critical to them becoming effective learners.

To help students grow and increase their capacity for learning, it is essential they are working in their Learning Zone. As educators, we must provide appropriately challenging tasks. Our tasks must demand not only more learning from students, but better learning from students. Our focus must to be on our students becoming better learners.

Likewise, students need to understand the difference between doing more and doing better. We need to teach them to actively seek their Learning Zone, to stretch themselves and focus not only on what they are learning, but also on how they are learning.

As you write your end-of-year reports, take a moment to consider these questions:

  • Given the choice, does the student you’re reporting on tend to set their sights above or below the bar?
  • Does the student stretch themselves and set challenges in their learning zone that demand more of them? Or do they tend to duck below the bar, limiting or reducing the degree of the challenge?
  • In your comments and reward structures, what do we value? Are students being rewarded for doing more learning or doing better learning?
  • What advice might you give students to encourage them to raise the bar?

Learning to do better relates to the first of the Five Elements of Effort, because, as Anders Ericsson puts it, if you never stretch yourself beyond your current best, you will never improve.

This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice. If you never push yourself outside your comfort zone, you will never improve.

If you’d like to know more about how to use the Five Elements of Effort in your assessment and reporting, and would like to trial these ideas in your classroom, send me a short email to find out more.


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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