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Guest Blog by Heather Lyon

This blog is an excerpt from Heather’s upcoming book, The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies, where she shares how she uses The Learning Pit with her graduate students.

The college course I teach is called “EDU 645: Curriculum Planning, Design, Implementation, and Evaluation” (I didn’t name it).  In creating my syllabus, I decided to include a thematic question that we focus on from the first night and revisit throughout the course.  This question is also one that I have the students ask themselves, their co-workers, practicing administrators, and guest speakers to the class.  What’s the question?  “Who is curriculum for?”  I don’t ask them to ponder about “what” curriculum is.  The “what” question has a right and a wrong answer.  That question is simply one that requires opening up a dictionary or glossary of a book.  No.  I do not want them to wrestle with what curriculum is, but who curriculum is for because the question is not easy to answer.

My desire to ask this specific question came after being introduced to James Nottingham’s book, The Learning Challenge: How to Guide Your Students Through the Learning Pit to Achieve Deeper Understanding.  As John Hattie acknowledges in the “Foreward” of the book:

Learning involves being on the edge of knowing and not knowing.  It involves acknowledging what we do not yet know but could with effort and strategy.  It sometimes involves reorganizing what we already think we know into something different and giving up some previous and sometimes precious knowledge to reach a deeper and more flexible understanding.  As Piaget famously said, it involves disequilibrium.  That is, learning occurs when there is an imbalance between what is understood and what is encountered.  When our equilibrium is imbalanced, we have the possibility to grow and develop.[i] (emphasis in original)

To achieve this, Nottingham provides the reader with a visual to show the journey from the start to finish of the learning pit process (see the image below).

Learning Pit 3 - detailed

The Learning Pit journey essentially has five markers, beginning with being confronted with a “concept” that at least some of the students would think they understand already.  In my class, that was the concept of curriculum.  In the image of the journey you can see that the student starts on the figurative edge of the pit because once the student really starts to mull over the concept, the student finds him/herself falling into the pit.  This is because during the “challenge” phase of the journey, the student starts to see nuances and inconsistencies with the concept.  In my class, this is when students see that when they ask the question, “Who is curriculum for,” to different people, the answers are inconsistent.

In the “cognitive conflict” point of the pit, students try to seek out answers to the new questions that have arisen related to the concept.  In my class, the students hear inconsistency and want to make their worlds tidy again.  So they question who they agree with and why, which causes them to look for other resources to resolve the dissonance.  This is the deepest portion of the pit; not only do you feel like you don’t know the concept anymore, you question if you ever knew it at all.

The good news is that the next step, “construct” begins to bring you out of the pit.  Here, students begin to feel like they have made some traction on their understanding because they start to notice patterns through organizing ideas.  My students, for example, began to broaden how the question could be answered based on what they learned from each other and the various resources in the course.  The idea that the concept could be answered in a nuanced way was originally not even considered.

Upon reaching the other side of the pit, the students have a better understanding of the concept than they had going into the pit, which is represented in the image above by showing that the exit cliff is higher than the point of entry into the pit.  When you exit the pit, you are excited about your progression.  My students shared with me that going through the Learning Pit was not only impactful for the course, but also for helping them frame for themselves and their students how we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to learn.  They said that the experience of using the Learning Pit gave them a concrete understanding of how their learning was going to progress and that was reassuring to them because otherwise they might have been even more uncomfortable when they didn’t have a concrete answer to the question.  As well, they started to see that this process of concept, challenge, cognitive conflict, construct, and eureka was one that was applicable any- and everywhere and kept them absorbed in the learning; they were driven to come to some resolution.

How can you create a learning challenge?  First and foremost, you have to develop a really strong question. Admittedly, for me, this was the hardest part.  I went through several iterations before I decided that “Who is curriculum for” was the one I was going to use.  I found it extremely helpful to explicitly teach my students the Learning Pit using the visual and some excellent videos found at Nottingham’s website,  I also had to celebrate (yes CELEBRATE) and validate their journey into, struggles in, and ultimate exit from the pit.  When they would say, “Wait!  I’m confused.  Last week I thought X and now I’m thinking that’s not right,” I’d exclaim, “Yes!!  This is great!!  You’re in the pit!!”  My job was not to get them out, but to let them know that it was okay for them to be there and that I had confidence that, with time, they would get themselves out.  Was it messy?  Sure.  Did I sometimes have to bite my tongue?  Of course.  Was it worth the struggle?  Absolutely!

[1] Nottingham, J. (2017). The learning challenge: How to guide your students through the learning pit to achieve deeper understanding (p. xvii). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Heather Lyon is author of Engagement is not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal).  Heather is a former English teacher and has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and an Ed.M. in Reading from the University at Buffalo. She is an Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology for Lewiston-Porter Central School District in Western New York. Heather lives with her husband and three children, who make her smile and teach her the importance of kindness, respect, and patience.  Please follow Heather on Twitter @LyonsLetters and visit her website