How many times have you heard a student ask, “Is this good enough?”
Do your students look for the easiest options? Do they constantly seek their “path of least resistance”?
Are too many of your students focusing on completing work rather than completing it well? Do they ask, “Do I have to do this?” Or “Is this going to count”?
If you hear these types of questions, it’s because your students don’t have a good relationship with challenges. They look for the instant gratification of doing something easy rather than the long-term gain of doing something difficult.
In short, your students lack one of the essential skills of being an effective learner: understanding the nature of challenges.
The most skilful, effective learners recognise that the benefit of taking on challenges goes far beyond simply getting something done. Former US president John F. Kennedy, when announcing that America would put a man on the moon, recognised the true value of committing to difficult tasks when he famously said:
We choose to go to the moon … not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Kennedy recognised that the true value of taking on challenges is that they require us to grow our abilities. Challenges, he said, “serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
How do we shift students from taking the easy path to wanting to take the difficult path? How do we help our students embrace the more difficult things because they are hard? And how do we help them become the type of learners who thrive on challenges?
Taking on challenges
True learning doesn’t happen without a challenge. We must stretch (not strain) ourselves to increase our standards and abilities. As the world’s expert on expertise, Anders Ericsson, points out,
If you never push yourself beyond your current best, you will never improve.
A critical step in becoming a better learner, one who thrives on challenges, is learning to recognise the nature of the challenges we take on.
Students must recognise their Comfort Zone, Performance Zone, Learning Zone and Aspirational Zone and the benefits and consequences of targeting challenges in each – something I explain in my book, The Learning Landscape.
Learnership – climbing the mountains of expertise
In the Learning Landscape, height represents difficulty. The higher you go, the more complex and difficult a task is. Experts are the ones who have climbed the tallest mountains; they stand atop the highest peaks of expertise. Beginners are in the lowlands, having not yet climbed very high. Day after day, year after year, we encourage students to climb higher in the Learning Landscape.
And just as the mountaineers who climb the tallest mountains must be highly skilled, so too must our most successful learners be highly skilled.
"To ascend the mountains of expertise, we must become skilful learners and develop what I call “Learnership”."
When students take on challenges, it’s the challenges that ask a little more of them, the ones that stretch them into their Learning Zone, that gain them height and lead them towards the peaks of expertise. In this way, the Learning Landscape helps students “see” the benefits of taking on challenges that take them “uphill”.
This immediately gives students a sense of what their learning journey looks like. They explore different parts of the Learning Landscape as they cover new topics and learn more. To get better, they must climb higher and, as they do so, learn how to succeed at more complicated tasks.
Choosing the easy options, the paths of least resistance, may take students somewhere new, but they will keep them in the lowlands. Students will fail to gain height, build expertise and develop Learnership.
To develop Learnership, climb higher, raise their standard and master things beyond their current abilities, students must face the challenges that make them pass through their Learning Zone. One way the Learning Landscape allows students to develop Learnership is by allowing them to see these 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.
When students spend their time climbing through their Learning Zone and gaining height in the Learning Landscape, they not only master the challenge before them, but they also equip themselves to do more difficult things. They fill their backpacks with powerful Habits of Mind. As JFK said, these difficult things “serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Equipping students with the Habits of Mind necessary to climb higher allows them to succeed at the current task and prepares them to do other, more difficult tasks.
Students who ask, “Do I have to do this?” or who only take on a challenge if “it’s going to count” (towards a grade) haven’t learnt to recognise or value the broader benefits of doing something because it is hard. They are still developing their Learnership and understanding of themselves as skilful learners.
The Learning Landscape helps students recognise that doing hard things instead of easy things gains them expertise. And, as we’ll see in a future blog post, climbing higher demands that they fill their backpacks with powerful Habits of Mind, which in turn further develops their Learnership and makes all climbing easier!
Next week, we’ll extend our metaphor of the Learning Landscape and help students visualise and understand even more clearly the four different types of Challenge Pit, all of which have very different impacts on student learning.
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