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The Learning Pit for Leaders

The Learning Pit for your team

When you want your team to learn something new – or to deepen their understanding of a current topic – it can feel as if things get worse before they get better. Staff go from knowing what they are supposed to do and when, to being unsure of themselves and each other. Your team starts questioning the point of the exercise. Some refer to this as the performance dip. We call it the Learning Pit.

When this happens, it is important to share with staff that their sense of going backwards before improving is a normal part of the learning process. In fact, it is often necessary. Without undoing some of the old habits, improvement is unlikely. This performance dip shouldn’t be blamed on misapplication or mismanagement but on the nature of change. We reassure our students those complications and missteps are an expected part of learning. We should do the same with our colleagues.

James Nottingham has gained a tremendous amount of content and insight from his work around the world and can help your team through their professional learning pit. Just get in touch!

Links for Leaders

James hasn’t finished his book for leaders (yet) but it’s on its way. In the meantime, here are some articles to read and links to follow.

Lead Your Team Through the Learning Pit

The Learning Pit is a student-friendly representation of Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development. It describes the move from current ability to potential development and encourages students (and staff) to step out of their comfort zone. The problem is that many people are anxious about doing this. They fear making mistakes or failing. Some worry they will look foolish or stupid. Others have the sense that if they find something difficult then it proves they are just not that clever. It is in these situations that referring to the Learning Pit can help.

The image below shows a classic representation of the Learning Pit. It draws attention to the thoughts people experience as they move from knowing a little to unearthing contradictions and nuances at the bottom of the pit; to persevering with their problem-solving until they emerge with a better, more complete understanding, solution or skill.

It is worth noting that this is just one version of the Learning Pit. There are many, many others. Indeed, do a search online and you will generate at least 250 million results; in some countries, the number of ‘hits’ is well over a billion. Not bad for a metaphor that began its life as a chalk drawing in a middle school classroom in the late nineties!

Values associated with the Learning Pit

Images of the Learning Pit will help pique your students’ interest, but of course more is needed to realise its full potential. The following values are a very good next step.

Describe challenge as interesting

Very often, learners will view challenges as ‘difficult.’ Whereas, if we talk about challenges as being ‘interesting’ or ‘intriguing’ then students are less likely to be disheartened or fearful of stepping out of their comfort zone. You can read more about this in The Learning Challenge (Section 1.3, 2017) and Challenging Mindset (Section 8.1, 2018).

Support learners with inquiry and making connections

When learners link ideas, concepts, skills, and theories together, they are able to form a more complete understanding of the world around them. Indeed, it is this process of ‘making connections’ that is arguably the key difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. If these connections reach across disciplines, then transferability will also be enhanced.

Encourage open-mindedness & a willingness to learn from others

Students are often more interested in learning when others around them are curious and willing to express uncertainty, so model open-mindedness. Phrases such as ‘I’m not sure’, ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’ and ‘I was wondering’ will help. Remind your staff of the celebrated Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1919) assertion in The Second Coming, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

Use dialogue to enhance learning

Encouraging students to talk about their ideas, assumptions and misconceptions – and to question each other – is at the heart of Learning Pit experiences. Indeed, dialogue has been shown time and again to improve learning and yet is all too often dominated by teachers. Gad Yair (2000) found that teachers talk for 70-80% of lesson time, and that the amount they talk increases as the year level rises and the numbers of students in each class decrease. The Learning Pit can be used to redress this balance by developing dialogue and encouraging student voice.

Describe process as more important than outcome

Think of the process of going into the Learning Pit as more important than arriving at an answer. That is not to say achieving a consensus is a bad thing, but it is to say that it shouldn’t be thought of as the primary focus. After all, there are already too many lessons that hasten towards an answer at the expense of inquiry and exploration.

Recommended books for your team

The best introduction to the Learning Pit

Available in English, Spanish and Japanese

The most comprehensive guide to the Learning Pit

Available in English, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish

Lesson plans & resources to guide secondary students through the Learning Pit

The Learning Pit also appears in these books

By Professor Jo Boaler, Stanford University
By Professor Guy Claxton, King’s College, London

Professional Learning Opportunities for Your Team

Throughout his career, James has had experience as a teacher, leader, coach and consultant. He can help you guide your team through the Learning Pit with a mix of demonstration lessons, coaching, institute / workshop days, and webinars.

Three reasons to engage with James and the Learning Pit:

  1. He is happy to demonstrate in your context: give him any class of students, any age and he will run a lesson for your team to observe
  2. James will focus his time and energy on helping you to achieve the impact you desire – so he can give you our undivided, sustained support for as long as you want
  3. James has been successfully supporting pre-K-12 schools since 1999. In that time, he has never wavered from his core purpose of improving learning cultures. He doesn’t chase the new shiny toy or jump on any bandwagons. He sticks to what works best – and it shows in the impact on learning.

Independent research shows that James’s support leads to significant gains with:

  • Increased staff engagement and satisfaction
  • Improved student motivation, resilience and curiosity
  • The development of a shared language for learning
  • Better use of feedback, questioning and dialogue to enhance student learning
  • A healthier attitude towards challenge, progress and achievement
“What you get with the Learning Pit team is the perfect blend of research analysis, high expectations, good humour, and practical advice. The impact they have had across our Early Years, Primary & Secondary schools has been outstanding.”

(Director, Multi-academy Trust, UK)

James has deep knowledge of schooling and a great sense of humour, but most important there is seeming no challenge he is not prepared to undertake to make a difference to the learning lives of children.


The webinars with James were eye-opening. I had no idea how engaging, interactive & enjoyable online learning could be. They gave me hope, joy and practical strategies by the bucket load without even needing to leave my house. Superb!

Ways James Can Support Your Team


(PD, PL, CLPL, INSET, Teacher Training, Planning Days)

All staff: James’s presentations are relevant to everyone connected with student learning (leaders, teachers, support staff, administrators, board members)

All phases: he will include examples and advice that will connect directly to your whole team from pre-K to 12 (those working with 3-19-year-olds)

Onsite, online or blended: being in the same room certainly boosts rapport & context, but we reckon the online experiences we’ve crafted are a very close second (even though we say so ourselves!) So, take your pick – onsite, online or a blend of both to allow those who can’t join in-person to take part online instead

Invite your neighbours: James is happy to work with all group sizes so feel free to invite your neighbours. As long as your room can fit everyone in (preferably seated around tables in the case of half or full day events) then he would be delighted to work with them all

Take your time: he is happy to design anything from a 60-minute keynote to a half or full day immersive experience – before school, after school, any time you like … indeed, during the pandemic we were often found in our offices from 10pm to 6am running webinars for staff on the other side of the world

No complaints: over the last 20 years, James has crafted professional learning to include the optimum blend of challenge, encouragement, good humour, and practical strategies that your team will want to use the very next day. In fact, the only complaint he has ever heard from leaders is, having been so fired up with renewed enthusiasm, they regret not having a teaching commitment to be able to put everything into practice the very next day.


The work James does on ‘normal’ days when students are in class include:

Demonstration lessons
Give him any class, any age (3+) and James will work with your students in your setting. Your team are invited to observe the questioning strategies, thinking moves, and problem-solving techniques we recommend for use in every curriculum area.

Student voice
After 40 years of in-school observations, recordings and interviews, Professor Graham Nuttall warned that teachers rarely know what their students think (The Hidden Lives of Learners,2007). His evidence suggests we educators are (sometimes blissfully) unaware of what are students are really thinking, noticing, or learning. Taking on this challenge, James has designed questioning strategies that draw out honest responses from your students. He audio-records the responses so that he can provide you with an anonymous transcript for interpretation and analysis.

Learning walks plus report
As an independent observer he can give you an unbiased snapshot of how much progress your team have made towards your shared vision. Through learning walks, and student, staff and community interviews, he will compare what he notices in your building(s) with the learning environments he encounters around the world to give you a clear set of recommendations. His advice is always aspirational and encouraging, never critical or political.

Team teaching
Team teaching is increasingly common because at best, it leads to more personalised and frequent interaction with students. Sometimes though, it ends up with one teacher teaching and the other catching up on administrative tasks! James can help you to put this right by showing your team just how effective team teaching can be. He will work with teachers to set goals, design lessons, co-teach students, and evaluate results.


We can help you and your team refine and problem-solve the elements of your practice you are most interested in. Working one-to-one or with small groups, we offer attention, empathy, encouragement and, when appropriate, modelling of good practice.

Coaching can be face-to-face, online or a mix of both. It can be stand-alone or designed to complement the other forms of professional learning we are supporting your team with.

Topics include helping your team to create a shared vision; building a shared language for learning; receiving feedback on your practice (with the option to send video clips for us to review alongside you); reviewing your plans (e.g. action plans for leaders or departments/faculties; curriculum plans; lesson plans); problem-solving issues; being a shoulder to cry on …


Maximum flexibility: tell us what you want, and we’ll provide you with the resources needed for professional learning to take place whenever – and however frequently – you would like.

Video Library
We have an extensive video library that we share with our partner schools. Typically 5-8 minutes long, each video gives a summary of research and associated recommendations for one of these topics: challenge; classroom talk; creativity & lateral thinking; efficacy (self & collective); feedback & assessment; growth mindset; the Learning Pit; learning how to learn; Philosophy for Children (P4C); preview & flipped learning; progress; questioning; surface-to-deep learning; SOLO taxonomy; thinking skills; Visible Learning.

Commissioned Videos
These have become such a popular request in recent years that we now have our own green-screen studio at the Learning Pit HQ. Tell us what you want, and we’ll craft a video for you that in many ways is even better than the real thing! OK, so you won’t get the rapport of a live event, but our videos are all accompanied by graphics in any language you choose; can have subtitles in any language and of course, can be watched again and again – perfect for onboarding new staff or refresher courses for your whole team.

The Learning Pit Academy
The first iteration of the Learning Pit Academy was launched in 2021.  It is an online course that enables your team to take a deep dive into the Learning Pit, leading to accreditation as a Learning Pit trainer and advisor. Participants engage in modules at a time to suit themselves and at their own pace on any web enabled device. They post their reflections in the Learning Pit Forum and engage with other participants from around the world. Additional resources and coaching are offered when teams, PLCs, networks and districts join as a collective.  James can adapt the course to meet the needs of your school or district.

Contact Us

Reach out to Sarah if you would like to discuss the next steps for your team.

Events Manager

Sarah Unwin


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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