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The Learning Pit at Home

James Nottingham created the Learning Pit to help young people...

1.  Take a positive attitude towards challenge

As a teacher, Nottingham noticed that many children take shortcuts and easier options to avoid having to think too deeply about tasks. This might be prudent when speed is of the essence. However, if the purpose of the task is to learn and improve, then it is far wiser to take intellectual risks, ask searching questions, and willingly step out of your comfort zone. One of the pioneers of educational psychology, Lev Vygotsky called this the Zone of Proximal Development. Nottingham coined the phrase, the Learning Pit, as a more child-friendly version of the same theory.

2. Be more prepared for the highs and lows of learning

A lot of people assume that learning involves putting one foot in front of the other until at last, they’re proficient. Unfortunately though, learning often involves stepping backwards or sideways – or even, starting all over again – and this can be disheartening, particularly if it’s unexpected. That is why many illustrations of the Learning Pit, such as this one here, include the sorts of worried thoughts people experience when struggling to learn something new or different. This is not to scare children – far from it; rather, it is about preparing them for what lies ahead so that they can be more strategic and determined. It is, as the old saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.

3. Move from information to understanding

As most teachers will tell you, the curriculum they have to teach is bloated with too many objectives to cover in one school year, particularly when their students have such a diverse range of needs and motivations. This pressure sometimes results in an overemphasis on ‘chalk & talk’, in which teachers deliver information and students are expected to ‘soak’ it up for regurgitation later. This pedagogy can be effective for the earlier stages of gathering surface-level knowledge but it’s not enough by itself. Young people alsoneed opportunities to make meaning; question reliability; sort and sequence ideas; and connect new information to their understanding of the world. The Learning Pit (and the more elaborate Learning Challenge, also by James Nottingham), is a tried-and-tested framework for helping teachers do exactly that: move their students from surface-level information to deep, contextualised understanding.

Learning Pit FAQs

What does it mean to be in the Learning Pit?

When someone is out of their comfort zone or struggling to learn something new, then they are in the Learning Pit. This light-hearted name – together with its cartoonlike illustrations – helps ease the sense of frustration often felt during the learning process. It can also be an empathetic and reassuring phrase to share with others, giving them the impression that everyone experiences Learning Pit moments.

Is the Learning Pit something to be avoided?

Depends on the context, but ordinarily no – the Learning Pit is not something to be avoided. Of course, if you want a quick answer or solution, then yes, avoid the Learning Pit! But if you want to explore ideas, make connections, ask questions, think of alternatives, and be more confident about the thoroughness of your solutions, then going into the Learning Pit will be worth the effort.

A Learning ‘Pit’ sounds negative; is there a more positive version?

James Nottingham chose a learning ‘pit’ because he wanted to be honest: stepping out of your comfort zone makes you feel uncomfortable (there’s a giveaway in the term, out of your comfort zone!)

A few people have suggested alternatives such as a ‘mountain of learning’. If that works for you, then go for it! The problem is, a mountain doesn’t really capture the sense of frustration someone feels when struggling to learn something new or different. The route taken when scaling a mountain is ‘you climb up then you descend’. Whereas learning often means getting worse before you get better. It feels like descending first (or going backwards) and then moving up … hence a pit rather than a mountain.

Should I rescue my child from the Learning Pit?

Think about how you taught your child to ride a bike and mirror that approach! When they’re in the Learning Pit, respond to them the same way you did when they took their first few wobbly rides on a bike. Don’t rescue them; encourage them. Run alongside them. Ridealongside them. Show how much you love the same activity. Talk positively about it. Describe the places to go, the experiences they’ll have, as soon as they’ve worked it out successfully.

That said, there are of course phases to learning. At the very beginning of bike riding, you had to build up your child to taking their maiden voyage. This probably included talking positively about bike riding and nurturing your child’s desire to ride. You gave them lots of support – holding the bike frame as you ran alongside them – plus lots of encouragement. As soon as they were ready, you ‘let them go’ and cheered as they wobbled their way along the path. When they fell off, you checked they were still in one piece, reassured them, and then made it a priority to get them back on their bike. You knew that finishing a session with failure would make the process of starting again that much more difficult. So, you always finished with an experience that gave them a sense of success and accomplishment.

Take that exact same approach to supporting their homework (and learning in general). If they’re right at the beginning of something, with no idea what to do or how to make a start, then ‘hold the bike frame’ by demonstrating and guiding them. BUT if they’re wobbling their way along (which is when they’re in the Learning Pit) – if they’ve got a good idea what to do but are not very proficient at it yet – then ‘run alongside them’ but do not rescue them! Don’t be one of those parents who do their children’s homework for them (unless you want them to be less engaged or to feel a muffled sense of achievement!). Encourage them but don’t do it for them. Cheer them on as they work their way through the Learning Pit, but don’t rescue them.

What questions can I ask when my child is in the Learning Pit?

General questions could include:

  • Have you been in the Learning Pit today / this week?
  • What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learnt by being in the Learning Pit?
  • What’s the best thing about going through the Learning Pit?
  • Why do you think some people are confident at going through the Learning Pit whereas others avoid it?

Reflecting on the first phase of the Learning Pit

  • How confident were you at the beginning of the Learning Pit experience?
  • What was your first idea / first response?
  • When did you realise (the thing you were learning about) was more complex than you thought?
  • What question, action, or idea pushed you into the pit?

Thinking about being in the pit

  • What did you discover when you were in the pit?
  • Which strategies did you think of using?
  • Who did you team up with to create a cunning plan?
  • What was the most confusing or frustrating thing about being in the pit?

Describing the feeling of coming out of the pit

  • How did it feel as you climbed out of the pit?
  • Was it a flash of inspiration that gave you a way out of the pit? (if so, what was it?)
  • What did you do this time that you’d definitely do again (and why)?
  • What would you try to avoid next time?

Connecting to next steps

  • What are you going to do next?
  • How does what you’ve learned this time around fit into your learning generally (what connections can you make)?
  • What advice would you give to others about the best ways to go through the Learning Pit?
  • What questions do you still have?

What are the Learning Pit values?

When chatting with your child about their Learning Pit experiences (or indeed, their learning in general), it will help to create the right atmosphere if you demonstrate your belief in the following values:

  • I am interested in and respect your ideas
  • I will show interest by listening to you, questioning you and encouraging you to elaborate
  • I am confident you are capable of coming up with relevant questions, opinions, reasons, examples and comparisons
  • I will base our dialogue as much as I can on your questions, understanding, interests and values
  • We are thinkers who can tackle questions together and work towards the best answers and understanding
  • You should feel secure enough to take intellectual risks
  • Going through the Learning Pit leads to deeper and more enduring understanding

Ideas for Learning Pit Activities at Home

Three of our eleven books support learning outside of school.
Information and extracts are shared below:

Ideas for Learning Pit Activities at Home 

Three of our 12 books support learning outside of school. Information and extracts are shared below:

Encouraging Learning

How you can help Children Learn
James Nottingham, 2013


  • Strategies for helping children grow into curious, resilient, happy, articulate and thoughtful learners
  • Growth mindset strategies that build self-efficacy and self-esteem
  • Questioning techniques to engage and extend children’s thinking
  • Games to play with children to boost their curiosity, language and reasoning

Best ways to
praise children

Book Extract

Challenging Early Learning

Helping Young Children Learn How to Learn
James & Jill Nottingham, 2019


  • Photocopiable activity cards to support language and boost confidence
  • Strategies for helping children grow into curious, resilient, happy, articulate and thoughtful learners
  • Resource cards and practical suggestions for each activity

Thinking activities

with young children

Book Extract


Consultant, Author, Keynote Speaker

This site represents two tradenames:


This trademark is held by James Nottingham (reg. No. 6.381.157) Uses of the Learning Pit for educational and not-for-profit purposes are usually permitted when seeking permission via this site.


This is the name of the group of companies founded by James Nottingham (full details shown on the Contact Us page). It is also the name of his first book.

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