Dr. Judith M. Newman



Where Does Learning Happen?

[ Journal Excerpt ]

I was sitting in on an instructor's course being given by Michael Robertson, grand-daddy of hang gliding in Canada. Michael wanted the guys to think about when learning occurs. He drew the following diagram:


Now, he asked them, where does learning happen? The guys responded in a variety of ways. Michael pointed to "comfort zone". Here's where learning happens: in the comfort zone just before the stretch zone. If the learner is comfortable, confident, learning will happen in the stretch zone, too, but it starts getting "iffy" there because if a learner is in the stretch zone, there's danger of moving into the frustration/panic zone and then everything shuts down. The stretch zone can be very small—some days it may be nearly non-existant; in other words it's variable, which means frustration/panic is never far away. So it's important to be working in the learner's comfort zone.

What Michael didn't go on to expore with the guys was how could you recognize stretch and/or frustration/panic in individual learners. When I thought about it I could see that the signs are similar to the signals of engagement and anxiety/avoidance. Some learners can tell you outright, as Muriel did the other day, I'm leaving—I've just reached overload. But others either don't recognize it in themselves or have been socialized not to reveal it in which case I have to figure out how to recognize when to help them back into their comfort zone. That bringing back to a learner's comfort zone involves the sort of "supportive classroom" strategies I wrote about in the Supportive Classroom piece.

I raise the tension here because yesterday there were some moments when individuals had reached frustration/panic and I hadn't picked up on the stretch. Some said outright that they needed a stiff drink! Others just slipped away. When I became aware of the problem I stepped in and did what I could to get back to the comfort zone. The point is, I can't always tell when frustration/panic is coming—it often comes on quite quickly. I can recognize when someone has cut out. Then my job as teacher is to find a way of de-escalating the frustration, of bringing the learner back to the comfort zone. In several instances yesterday I did that by slowing down the pace, rectifying the problem, making sure that nothing was "lost" and getting folks back on the road again, making sure they were back in the driver's seat. There is no way I can prevent frustration. I can't know in advance what will cause frustration or panic in someone so I have to on the alert for signs that we're getting into that zone.

I, too, reached frustration at several points during the day—differences between the Mac and Windows interfaces frustrate me incredible, particularly when the system slows down and I can't do directly stuff that I know I can do so easily in my home environment. And the fact that I'm missing some bit of crucial information about working in FrontPage—I know that because the program isn't doing some things it should seamlessly—and having to work a kluge frustrates me. In the end what we want are all the pieces in HTML to generate a website. Word would have been the easier environment to work in, but since it wasn't working, wasn't saving files to HTML we had to make a shift to something that would. Someone yesterday asked me whether the Mount shouldn't be making sure that the equipment is in working shape—it would be nice if everything was on the system and working without a glitch, but in reality it's never like that. I know even on my own computer when I make some change to my software things can go awry unexpectedly. Murphy's Law is the given—if something can go wrong it will.

So the important thing about bringing sophisticated electronic technology into the classroom is to understand that you're constantly going to have to deal with the unexpected, to improvise, and occasionally shut down and go on to other things. That's just how it is. Your tolerance for ambiguity has to be relatively high—but that's not different from teaching in any situation. The given in a classroom is that I have to expect the unexpected, the unplanned.

And I constantly have to be on the alert for frustration/panic to strike so that I can take steps to help alieviate it.