My new book… Learning to struggle

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on my next book Learnership for Leaders. And it’s got me thinking about challenges again.

When I started writing, I realised I was writing at the same standard as “The Agile Learner” and “The Learning Landscape.” Both of those books are good books. But I want Learnership for Leaders to be a great book. It’s going to put Learnership on the map and raise the status of learning in our schools from an act to an art.

And that level of writing is challenging me. It makes me uncomfortable. I struggle. I can’t tell you the number of tasks that suddenly seem important (tidying my desk, answering that email) every time I sit down to write.

I need to remind myself that struggle is necessary for growth. It’s like Morgan Freeman says:

“Challenge Yourself. It’s the only path that leads to growth.”

The effort and struggle associated with challenge is the cost of growth. There is no other path. On the other side of that struggle are new abilities and new standards. On the other side of that struggle is an awesome book! (watch this space…)

So, as I’m challenging myself, and growing, I thought it might be useful to revisit our students’ relationship with challenge.

Learning to take on Challenges

When our students habitually avoid challenges, their learning stalls. When they learn to understand, value, and embrace challenge, their learning accelerates. So, helping our students develop a healthy relationship with challenge becomes one of the most important ways we can help them become better learners.

How do your students respond to a challenge?

Do your students avoid a challenge, seeking their “path of least resistance” in learning?

Or do they select the challenges they know they can do? Looking like they are working hard, but secretly avoiding mistakes by not taking on anything too challenging?

Maybe your students take on challenges because you tell them to. They follow your instructions as you led  them through challenging tasks.

Perhaps your students take on challenges because they need to. They have something they want to achieve, a goal in mind. Their relationship with challenge is born out of necessity so they can reach their goal.

But imagine if your students embraced challenges. In the spirt of John F. Kennedy when he said, “we do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!” Imagine if when they were given the choice of doing something hard, or something easy, they’d choose the more challenging task, because they understood that, like Morgan Freeman reminded us, challenge is the pathway to growth.

Becoming a Skilful Learner

How our students respond to challenges is a key element of what I call Learnership™ – the skill of learning. Learnership is a skill developed over time. It helps our students (and us) to get more out of every learning opportunity. Most importantly, Learnership is something we can teach our children that helps them to thrive both in school and life.

As teachers we can help our students on the path to becoming better learners, by helping them develop a healthier and more productive relationship with challenge.

Comfort Zone V’s Learning Zone. What’s the Difference?

The first step in helping your students develop a healthy relationship with challenge is to teach them the difference between their Comfort Zone and their Learning Zone

We’ve all heard that we need to get outside our comfort zone and challenge ourselves, but how many of our students truly understand what that means?

For many people, getting outside their comfort zone means trying something new. But something new, isn’t always something challenging. Very often “new” is simply an “easy thing we haven’t done yet.” There is little struggle involved in this type of challenge. It would be like me writing another book at the same standard as The Agile Learner or The Learning Landscape – it would just take time.

Challenges in your Comfort zone come with a great deal of certainty, and confidence that we’ll succeed. These challenges feel more like a task. They keep us busy, but they don’t help us get better. These types of challenges are in our Comfort Zone.

To be truly challenged our students need to stretch themselves beyond their current abilities. These types of challenge feel like a problem. Unlike a task where the path to completion is easily recognised, the solution to this challenge is not immediately apparent. They leave us feeling uncertain, and they involve struggle. The challenge feels “hard.” When our students feel like this, it’s a good sign they are in their Learning Zone.

Being in your Learning Zone feels uncomfortable. When our students find themselves in the Learning Zone, their first reaction is often to get out of it. Suddenly anything else seems like a more attractive option. They look for distractions, seek out easy options or adopt any number of avoidance strategies. (and that’s exactly how I’m feeling writing Learnership for Leaders)

Struggle is temporary

It’s important to help our students recognise that the feeling of struggle and discomfort that comes with being in their Learning Zone is temporary. It passes. Many children believe if they are struggling now, then the next step in learning will involve even more struggle. They believe that the further they go, the more uncomfortable they’ll feel. So naturally, they turn away from further struggle.

The reality is that effort is the currency of growth, and struggle is the price we pay for that growth. The reward is that what we experienced as hard today, becomes easy tomorrow. It doesn’t get harder and harder and harder. It’s hard, then it’s easy. Then they move on, and the next step is also hard, until they make that easy. Being in the Learning Zone, and experiencing the struggle that comes with it, is not only a normal part of learning, but also an essential part of growth.

Teaching for more skilful learners

As teachers we have an important role in helping our students become more skilful learners. This begins by helping them develop a healthy relationship with challenge. By teaching them that effort is the cost of growth and normalising the struggle that comes from being in their Learning Zone, we help them become “comfortably uncomfortable” with challenge and put them on a path of continuous growth. 

What’s your student’s relationship with challenge? How are you helping them understand that the struggle and discomfort of being in their Learning Zone is a normal, and temporary, part of any challenge. How are you helping them recognise that the reward for their struggle is growth?

Best Wishes, 



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