The Learning Pit – an aid for homeschooling parents who are being driven to drink

Remote Learning during Lockdown is the pits – but that’s okay if they’re Learning Pits.

I thought I’d take pity on all those parents resorting to TikTok and YouTube to post parodies of their children working at home and who rant about reaching for the Valium to get through the school day with their own beloved offspring who have turned into spawn of the Remote Learning Apocalypse. So I am letting you in on a teaching secret: the Learning Pit. Understanding this simple model may assist you and your child with school tasks at home and let you in on (some) of the magic educators learn when they study pedagogy.

The Learning Pit is model of learning developed by James Nottingham.  https://www.bookdepository.com/Learning-Challenge-James-Nottingham/9781506376424

It is a feature of 21st century learning and teaching that students are required to grapple with the unknown; face the fear of ignorance and learn to overcome.

The Learning Pit is an immensely empowering concept.

And it applies not only to a concept at school, but to all problems needing solving, so it is a guided way to coping with the problems of life (like avoiding opening the wine before lunch while your child is working on parts of speech.)

Now more than ever, during Lockdown, when children are learning remotely, this is a way to focus your youngsters and assist them to be self-sufficient. Besides reading, teaching a child strategies to learn is one of the most effective ways to equip a developing mind for a lifetime of successful learning.

Nottingham’s model suggests that real learning what we call ‘deep learning’ only happens when something new is learned and that can be a scary experience (almost as scary for parents who are facing similar pits during their ‘homeschooling experiments’ during COVID-19 lockdown at the moment.)

The concept is simple: if a youngster encounters a new section of work (the learning pit) and he ‘gets it’ easily, he can leap across the chasm like an avatar with that faux loping stride leaping across gorges (unrealistically) in Fortnite and can hurry on to his next challenge. He hasn’t learned anything new yet though. FYI Bright leaners do this often through school and often battle later on because they haven’t learnt HOW to navigate learning challenges so it’s important to stimulate them all the time (extend them until they face something hard) to ensure they learn the skills. All too often I have seen rosy-cheeked Dux scholars in prep school turn into average achievers later on in high school because they never learned about the struggle that is the learning pit. But they make great collaborators and cheerleaders in peer teaching -see ‘Collaborate’ below – if they understand both the work and the process.

So how does it work?

I love this child’s depiction of the pit:

When our intrepid warriors arrive at a pit that looks too dangerous and fear and confusion sets in, it’s game-on.  I urge teachers to encourage our learners to leap into that pit with both feet, as soon as they recognize that they don’t understand something, we want them to feel a sense of adventure and excitement, as if they are going on a quest.  A key factor in 21st century education is also the demystifying of the learning process so we point out each phase of the learning pit a child is in so they can chart their progress.

  • ‘Having a go’

This diagram above illustrates the dangers at the bottom of the pit and challenges to be overcome like on an epic journey.  (like those moments when your drooping Petal whines ‘I can’t! I don’t know what to do? And you’re thinking the same only with a few Anglo-Saxon words in between). But they are encouraged to jump on in and ‘have a go’ like the valiant gladiators of old.

  • A Leap of Faith

Tell them: The work may be tricky but the first important question to ask yourself is: ‘How can I do this’ – that is almost the key to crossing the bottom of the monster-filled abyss. I remember a scene in The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones (oh so young Harrison Ford) takes a leap of faith into the unknown and finds that there was a way across the impassible ravine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-JIfjNnnMA

That first step shows the way, but the adventurer still has to climb up and out of the learning pit.

Notice that nothing new has yet been learned, but the student has already started to climb out of the pit, because attitude to learning is so important. This is why we believe in making learning fun. If a child is playing, he doesn’t realize that he’s already crossed the chasm and is climbing.

  • Try something else

As with all climbs, things can be quite steep and so a good pupil should know that there can be different ways of solving things: ‘What else can I try?’

Recent problem-solving by clothing manufacturers who were forced to shut their doors overnight and stop trading due to the lockdown, have re-designed and developed their sports masks into fashionable and effective alternatives for the COVID-exerciser. Instead of focusing on products they can’t sell they have focused their marketing and sales on these much-needed current products, and become essential services in the process. This kind of creative thinking is what keeps businesses afloat when times change, so when your child is struggling with a Mathematics problem, don’t show him the way you were taught – if you can even remember(!) and not at first anyway. Encourage him to try different ways because this is part of developing creativity, which stand him in good stead when his career faces a challenge.

A child must own the problem; WANT to solve it and struggle with it a bit. We all know what happened to Kodak, The Concorde, Blockbuster Video Stores and Blackberry. They would not/could not innovate. There is nothing wrong with using the fruit and veges to work out answers to basic arithmetic. Make problems relevant to real life so they have a connection. So if all you do is guide them to see a link to their own experience, you will have helped them focus on alternative ways of looking at things. Just don’t do it for them. (Walk away and mix teh margaritas for later.)

Innovation is a vital skill to learn and it’s the first step of that upward climb to problem solving so give your child lots spare paper or let her open lots of word docs and keep trying different things.

Vi Active Carbon Mask with filters for Cyclists and other sportswomen in the fight against COVID-19
  • Grit

Trying can be exhausting though and is not necessarily immediately rewarding. Learning warriors need courage and resilience and what we call grit to believe that they can. (like that little train we all remember from our youthful storybooks: ‘I think I can…’) There is a dawning hope, with each small success. Encourage her to push herself just a little bit harder, for just a little bit longer. Athletes understand this about training – the brain must also be trained to think. And sweat is involved.

Again I plead with parents not to give in and tell your child the answer. We see too many high school students these days whose parents have given them everything on a plate and they have never learnt the simple truth that success does not come without hours of (their own) hard work. They throw their hands up in despair, blame the teacher, the school, the government and everyone else because they simply don’t know how to keep at something. Things like re-writes, editing, touch ups, second drafts, conceptualization, planning are all part of keeping at it; they need to keep slogging away, and not accepting pedestrian prose or mediocrity. Cheer them on when they do.

10 000 hours at a task brings you professionalism in something. Sadly, too few students these days know how to keep at something for that long. It’s not their fault. Everything in their world is ‘insta’ – the ‘gram, their cappuccino, the news, and take-aways to their doors; binging on series has prevented us from yearning and imagining, and even gaming teaches devotees to use the cheats. Without sounding as old as my own children say I am, have to confess that I worry that we are growing a nation of quitters and lazy thinkers who want instant answers. There are loads of fun ways teachers encourage children to stick at something: competitions, promised rewards, clues and even a simple thing like timing them gives them an end in sight to strive for, so draw your child into the game of learning and keep them on track. (It will work for yourself too, especially if your choice of the fruit of the vine is the prize). Let them play music if that is their poison. (Earphones are a wonderful invention and protect us from said noise pollution).

Having said that, it is possible that you are experiencing a more genteel time at home with your family, (if you’re not exhausted from multi-tasking – running your home and empire AND Junior’s Work programme) and that can allow learners a chance to explore tangential interests and it’s consequently a great opportunity for them to go slightly off track and discover things they are really interested in. We all know this is when the real learning happens, so allow them a little intellectual bundu bashing. (They may develop an app in that time that will make them famous and you rich – more wine!)

  • Collaborate

Collaboration is one of the fundamentals of 21st century education and even during lockdown it can be achieved via Teams and WhatsApp calls. Our offspring are connected. They know how to crowd-source ideas. One of mine decided today a name change was in order for her next birthday so she threw a few ideas at her friends and bingo she had her new name. (and it wasn’t B-I-N-G-O … now there’s a blast-from-the-past kiddies tune!) So they know how to connect. It’s our job as educators and parents to guide them into using these skills to co-operate on learning tasks the same way they collaborate in their social lives. ‘Phone a friend’ is a good catch phrase to have in your classroom or on the fridge – and it’s not just a phone call – this applies to all those lifelines : teacher, google, friend, parent, asking for clues. Re-watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ and draw up your own set of lifelines to point them at when they get to this stage. ‘Read a book, search for other resources, make an appointment for a one-on-one with your teacher on Teams, You Tube videos’ – all of these are important. YouTube may well replace tecahers one day – you can learn anything on there. My eldest son watched something on ‘how to escape from a hijacking’ and it worked two weeks later when someone started shooting at a traffic light. You can learn a lot from the Tube, not least of which is how to research.)

By this time of the day, you may have your wine in hand and all you will have to do is wave your glass at the fridge to point out the ‘Phone a friend’ options.

I have always believed that a ‘lazy’ teacher is an effective educator if he is steering his students into self-discoveries and can be a profound influence on his charges. (I use the word ‘lazy’ hesitantly and for effect because I mean it in the sense that he doesn’t spoonfeed his pupils with dished up answers on the set platter of pretty notes and worksheets. In fact much time and forethought goes into planning a lesson that requires the children to do – to struggle, engage, chew on the pencil (not the stylus please though), scratch heads, stare into the vistas of space, doodle, cross out and keep trying. That is facilitating discovery. That is teaching). 

Collaboration through peer-learning is important to facillitate – it empowers both teacher and learner and encourages empathy and altruism, qualities that are in rather short supply. Suggest siblings help each other, while you finish your own work (or wine).

  • Self-confidence

You have almost summited the mountain if you reach the point that a child is thinking ‘I am getting there.’ This is that heady moment when a learner picks up the pace, and feels the adrenalin of final summitting the Everest of his subject. This is self-belief and is so vital for self-esteem. This is where the teacher/parent is the cheerleader, the folks back home waving the flag of support. So, don’t rob them of this high by giving them the answer because next time they will expect you to do it again. This is when you tell them they are fabulous and you knew they could do it; when you paste their artwork on the fridge/wall outside to motivate passers-by like my neighbor did with her daughter.

  • Success

Give them that buzz of accomplishment and let them own the ‘Eureka moment.’ Because next time they will jump into the pit more eagerly because they know they can do it and they will need you less and less and eventually, if you are very lucky, and lockdown ends, they’ll leave home, buy you a wine farm and support you in your old age… because you taught them to solve problems on their own. School is a place and time to prepare you for life and let’s face it life is hard!

You will have taught them to think.

And you gave them an even greater gift: confidence to do it all again.

So that is the secret from the oracle today:

When it all gets too much for you, tell them to go and jump into the pit…. and resist the urge to bury them in there. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll find a way to dig themselves out anyway!

One Word which Kills Transformative Dialogue

The moment you use the word ‘surely’ in conversation or debate, you have closed yourself off from hearing the other person’s view and lost an opportunity to be changed by diverse viewpoints. It is the conversational version of crossed arms.

Image result for cross person with hands crossed

I love being around young people because I learn so much from them. The negative view of the word ‘surely’ comes from my daughter who has been lecturing at the University of Cape Town for the past year. Challenging the use of the word comes out of conversations specifically around transformation and diversity, but has much wider implications for all relationships.

Think about it: Every sentence that begins or ends with ‘surely’ immediately suggests that whatever the other speaker is about to say cannot contradict your opinion, because your ten cents worth is assuredly correct.. ‘Surely’ is a verbal roadblock to being open to another theory and it kills collaborative activity.

Image result for conversation roadblocks

And then we combine it with the ubiquitous ‘but’ which automatically translates as ‘No, you are wrong’ and so doing, we show ourselves to be arrogant and patronising. This is how we communicate our prejudices, patriarchy, misogyny and colonial attitudes, in fact our bias. ‘Surely’ almost inevitably introduces gaslighting of some kind.

But surely, you can see… (your ideas are rubbish)
But surely the government/taxis/women/other races should… (I know what is best for everyone)
But surely you must… (I am going to make you do it my way)

Translation: You/they are wrong. I want you to think, speak and do what I want you to.
I am in charge.

And out the window go empathy and compassion. Harper Lee in the famous To Kill a Mocking Bird speaks about walking in another man’s shoes and even goes so far as to say we should climb into someone else’s skin:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


Chapter 3, To Kill a Mocking Bird

We don’t have to physically climb into someone’s shoes or skin (that’s a bit creepy anyway) but listening without judging requires us to suspend our ‘but surely’ retorts so that we open ourselves to innovative ideas and truths and see the world through another’s eyes.

If we are going to have any meaningful transformational dialogues we have to find ways in which we can ensure individuals are heard.

So drop this one word from your vocabulary. Try saying ‘I think’ when stating your vision. Better still, ask what someone else thinks.

And then shut up and listen.