M1a. Video 1 – An Introduction and the Structure of the Learning Pit Preview

In this first video, I describe my purpose in creating the Learning Pit.

Video 1 Key Points

  1. I created the Learning Pit to encourage my students to step out of their comfort zone.
  2. Earlier, I had tried using Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and then my own representation of that, The Teaching Target Model, as a way to encourage my students to go beyond what they know and can do. However, neither approach seemed to strike a chord with my students which is what led me to create the Learning Pit.
  3. In many ways, the Learning Pit is a child-friendly representation of Vygotsky’s (1978) ZPD.
  4. The Learning Pit can be used as a way to represent, and talk about, the different steps and feelings associated with learning.

It would be fair to say, the Learning Pit has taken on a life of its own in the 20+ years since I created it. After developing it with my students in the late 1990s and then sharing it with education audiences throughout the early 2000s, the image can now be found in thousands of classrooms around the world. Indeed, do an online search for ‘Learning Pit’ and you will be presented with more than 200 million results.

My purpose in creating the Learning Pit was to encourage young people to willingly step out of their comfort zone. It seemed to me that too many students were hesitant, or even fearful, of taking on challenging tasks. Many were anxious about making mistakes or looking foolish in front of their peers. He also noticed a growing tendency for teachers to ‘rescue’ their students at the first signs of confusion or defeat. And yet the research evidence is clear: we learn more when we step out of our comfort zone.

Dylan Wiliam, the professor jointly responsible for developing Assessment for Learning, wrote in a blog recently, ‘If students do not have to work hard to make sense of what they are learning, then they are less likely to remember it in six weeks’ time,’ (Wiliam, 2016). Elizabeth and Robert Bjork – two professors of psychology at the University of California – compiled a very interesting meta-analysis that concluded: ‘When learners do well on a learning task, they are likely to forget things more quickly than if they do badly on the learning task; desirable difficulties enhance learning,’ (Bjork & Bjork, 2011).

So, it seems the old adage ‘easy come, easy go’ is as relevant today as it was when it was first uttered generations ago. If we want to avoid learners forgetting what they’ve learnt, then we need to engage them in deep thinking – and challenge them more (not less) during the learning process.

The Structure of the Learning Pit

The Learning Pit illustrates the steps often encountered when learning something new. It describes the move from (1) knowing one or two things about a topic, to (2) knowing quite a lot about that topic but also unearthing some complexity or contradictory information, to (3) making sense of the information by sequencing, grouping or in some way organising it, to (4) considering the journey taken and the lessons learned for future reference.

It also applies to learning a new skill or developing abilities, from (1) being able to perform a skill in a basic way, to (2) making some progress but also struggling with the complexity or application of the skill, to (3) developing some fluency or rhythm, to (4) feeling a sense of mastery and identifying the lessons learned along the way.

Figure 2: The Learning Pit

Sharing an image of the Learning Pit – such as the one shown in Figure 2 – has three main purposes:

Learning Outcome Highlight

Understand some of the ways the Learning Pit can be used to support student learning

Learning Outcome Highlight

Understand some of the ways the Learning Pit can be used to support student learning

1. To reassure students when they find themselves struggling that learning often involves getting worse before getting better – so to not let their struggles dishearten them but instead galvanise them to keep going until they come ‘out of the Learning Pit’.

2. To challenge students to intentionally go through the Learning Pit so that they can achieve more sustainable and satisfying results. Although it can be tempting to take short cuts to get the job done as quickly as possible, this generally leads to temporary success, whereas taking the more challenging route enables changes that are longer lasting. Bjork & Bjork (1994) summarised this very well after years of research by stating that, ‘When learners do well on a learning task, they are likely to forget things more quickly than if they do badly on the learning task. Desirable difficulties enhance learning.’

3. To encourage students, when they willingly choose to step out of their comfort zones, that they are doing the right thing and that the effort is worth it. Often it helps to draw a parallel with choosing to do exercise – to begin with, a new fitness regime causes discomfort. However, the more we keep at it, the more we get hooked on it and the more we get into the habit of choosing to exercise, bringing with it a broad array of health benefits. It is a similar situation with the Learning Pit – to begin with, it feels uncomfortable to have to think hard but after a while, these experiences become energising to the point that students become hooked on challenge. This then leads to them seeking out and engaging with more challenges which, on many occasions, has been shown to lead to significant improvements in learning progress.

In summary, the Learning Pit is a way to describe the process of learning and to offer a language with which to talk about the frustrations and elations of progress. It is also intended to be used as a framework to introduce more challenge to lessons so as to provide increased opportunity for students to develop their thinking ‘fitness’ or, as Guy Claxton (2002) calls it, ‘build their learning muscles’. As such, the Learning Pit is not something to avoid, but something to embrace and engage with!