How many times have you heard a student ask, “Is this good enough?”

Perhaps your students look for the easiest options? Or are constantly seeking the path of least resistance?

Are too many of your students focused on completion rather than challenge? Do they ask questions such as, “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 might avoid challenges altogether or 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 learning landscape: helping us understand challenge

The Learning Landscape – James Anderson

In my book, The Learning Landscape, I give students and teachers a way to visualise and understand and the nature of challenges. The metaphor of a learning landscape helps us recognise that not everything that we call a challenge, truly helps us grow. In this 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.

As a learner journeys through the Learning Landscape, exploring new knowledge and understandings, they encounter challenges in the form of pits. I’ve deliberately called these Challenge Pits, not Learning Pits, because the pit represents the challenge. Learning is represented by what the student does by moving through and climbing out of the Challenge Pit. Using a pit to represent challenges helps learners understand why effort is required. It reflects the physical exertion and emotional reaction to confronting something difficult, enhancing their understanding of the learning process. It helps us normalise struggle in the learning process, explaining why struggle is necessary for everyone, not just for some. It also helps students understand why not all challenges are the same.

Four different types of Challenge Pits

Using the metaphor of the Learning Landscape, we quickly recognise that not all challenges are the same. In fact, there are four types of challenge, represented by four different types of Challenge Pits:

  • Downhill Challenges are easy. They take us somewhere new in the Learning Landscape, but don’t lead us higher or help us master something more difficult. They keep us in our comfort zone and feel like a task that needs to be completed. They keep us busy, but don’t help us get better.
  • Performance Challenges require us to ‘give it our best’, but no better. They demand that we bring all our existing abilities and Habits of Mind to the task to match our current peak performance. These challenges feel like a performance, a demonstration of everything we can do. There are certainly times when we need to do our best. However, doing your best, doesn’t help you climb higher in the learning landscape, it doesn’t help you get better.
  • Learning Challenges are the types of challenges that require us to master something more difficult than we’ve done before. We have to climb higher in the learning landscape. They force us into our Learning Zone, and in doing so, we must focus not only on what we are learning, but also on how we are learning. These challenges feel like a problem. They require us to struggle, and we must grow to succeed at them.
  • Our fourth challenge is an Aspirational Challenge. Sometimes the Challenge Pit is simply too deep to get out of. You can’t become an expert overnight. These challenges are impossible to achieve in one climb. They need to be broken down into smaller Learning Challenges before that height and level of difficulty can be reached. If you haven’t learnt to recognise these types of challenges, and how to respond to them, they can leave you feeling overwhelmed, confused or defeated.
Which Challenge Pit are you in today?

Skilful learners become increasingly aware of the types of challenges they take on and where those challenges are taking them. They learn to recognise when they are in their Comfort, Performance, Learning or Aspirational Zone, and they become more attuned to how and when to operate in each. Most importantly, the begin to seek out Learning Challenges for the opportunity these challenges give them to climb higher, towards the mountains of expertise.

Are you in your Learning Zone?

The most skilful learners recognise that the benefit of taking on challenges goes far beyond simply getting something done. They understand what former US president John F. Kennedy said when announcing that America would put a man on the moon

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 develop our abilities. The true value lies not simply in completing the task, but rather in developing ourselves so we can succeed at the challenge. 

Of course, taking on Learning Challenges does not necessarily mean the learner can succeed at them. Many of our students jump into a Challenge Pit (or are pushed in!) only to find themselves unable to get out. So, in next month’s blog we’ll explore how skilful learners fill their backpacks with powerful Habits of Mind in order to climb out of a Challenge Pit.