Do the things we know about how students learn apply to faculty when they’re learning about teaching? That question follows me around. I think about for a while, forget it, and then bump into it again. My latest encounter happened yesterday, when I decided to write about the features of learning inside and outside your comfort zone.
Learning inside your comfort zone feels good. You know what you’re doing, which increases your motivation and makes you want to keep doing it. Even though you may know a lot about what you’re studying or can ably execute the skills associated with it, there’s always more to learn. Learning in your comfort zone is the easy part of the trip to expertise. Knowledge and skills move forward, powered by past successes. At the same time, always learning within your comfort zone tends to dampen your interest in other kinds of learning. Who wants to go back to being a beginner?
Learning outside the comfort zone is higher risk and usually less pleasant than learning within it. Progress is slow and accompanied by frustration, and failure is either close at hand or happening regularly. The stakes are high: What if you can’t learn it? What if you fail in public? But if you do figure it out, and execute it with even modest elegance, the pleasure is palpable. You have learned something you didn’t think you could do, which opens the possibility of still more learning and in areas you hadn’t really considered or didn’t think of interest.
For students who aren’t confident, empowered learners, college is a confrontation with all kinds of different knowledge and skills. It makes those students want to hide in the safety of their comfort zones. Suggest a new study strategy to a struggling student, offering evidence that it works, and you’ll hear a response like this: “I learned how to study in high school, and I don’t really want to mess with what I know works.” But it’s not working all that well! Confidence doesn’t expand if the learner doesn’t branch out. When we teach students who’d rather stick with what they know, we face several challenges. First, we have to find a suitable balance between learning that goes where students are and learning that takes them places they haven’t been and are reluctant to go. Second, we need to move them to those new places incrementally. If learning outside the comfort zone goes badly for a student, it can irreparably damage their beliefs about what they can accomplish. Finally, we need to design learning experiences where hard work and persistence contribute more to success than ability.
And what about teachers learning about teaching—not so much how to teach, but the midcareer learning that involves ongoing instructional growth and development? Say teachers want or need to make some changes. What do they select when given a range of options? “I pick things I think I can do,” faculty tell me in workshops. “Those that fit comfortably with how you currently teach?” I ask. Heads nod, and I think comfort-zone learning. And the response to learning outside the comfort zone—for instance, quizzing strategies that encourage collaboration, letting students set classroom policy, flexible assignment due dates, or peer assessment that counts for part of a grade—usually engenders some resistance. It’s often stated as a litany of reasons why what’s being proposed won’t work. “Radical” innovations are undertaken with an edgy sense of risk. Learning outside the comfort zone? I think so.
Do teachers, like students, need both? I have proposed for some time now that teaching can be improved from two directions: you can build on your strengths, or you can tackle your weaknesses. Most of us are more aware of our weaknesses than of our strengths, but we’re more likely to work on what we already do well. Working on weaknesses isn’t nearly as much fun; it’s the unpaved road that winds slowly to expertise. But the trip’s more memorable, yielding a wider sense of what we can accomplish as teachers. Many instructional weaknesses can be modified if not overcome.
Should we listen more closely to what we tell students about learning that comes easily and learning that doesn’t? I think so because at least some of what we know about how students learn appears to apply to us. Does that cause a bit of discomfort? If so, then maybe we’ve reached the zone where the potential for learning is greatest.