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The Learning Pit

The Learning PitTeaching students to overcome challenges can be difficult when we live in a society that is all about getting things done quickly. We have technology, parents and constant distractions constantly telling students they can learn anything anytime with little or no effort. As a teacher, this is very challenging when students feel they’ve failed, get frustrated or give up right away.

This was what was happening in our classroom. Students that could manage challenges were more successful overall because they kept working until they got it. It felt like it was a lack of effort, but it was much more than that. So we started investigating and researching best practices to help us teach students to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

You’ve likely heard of Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset and while her work is definitely aligns with our goals, this article actually starts with Facebook. Yup, a friend posted a video on Facebook and it led us on this journey. You can watch the video.


It is based on the work of James Nottingham and you MUST visit his site. He discusses four main steps in the learning process.

Concept: The material in which students are familiar but have not mastered.

Conflict: Create an intentional cognitive conflict which will allow students to build a Growth Mindset.

Construct: Teach students skills, tools and methods to overcome the challenge and thus master the concept.

Consider: Have students reflect on the steps they took to resolve the conflict and consider new ways to use the information they’ve acquired.

So what does this look like in our classroom?

We started with a difficult STEM challenge.  It happened to be from our Electricity Critical Thinking Challenges, but it could be ANY difficult concept from long division to this free fun activity we’ve also used. Don’t tell students that you’re going to make them struggle the first time you introduce this concept. Give them the activity and don’t overly explain or teach them what to do (this is the cognitive conflict). While they work, collect words or phrases you hear that relate to the conflict.

Stop the activity and tell students you’ve intentionally made it difficult for them. Draw a big pit. We made ours on butcher block style paper running along an entire wall. Place the conflict words in the bottom of the pit. Ask students to give you other words they thought of when they were working.

Give students enough information to lead them to discovering the answer. Listen to and record these words. Add them at the top of the pit. Brainstorm other words that might fit into this category. The most unexpected result was when students said they liked the feeling of “getting it.” We explained the role of teachers is to help students feel that “get it.” From then on, our class agreed we needed to be careful not to take the “getting it” feeling away from each other.

Between the bottom of the pit (conflict) and top (consider) brainstorm with students words or phrases that help them construct understanding. We turned these into steps. We talked about all the ways they learned to do things like modeling, researching and asking good questions.

We finished off our Learning Pit mural by adding a title, key words under the pit that reflect learning and some stick figures to represent students moving through the journey just for fun. As our school year progressed, we continually added to the pit and some students even made pits of their own.  We realize our photo is a little challenging to read, so we’ve made a document that lists all the possible words which you can view.

So did it work? The process of building the pit took a week. From that point on, whenever we knew the new concept or activity was going to challenge students we would tell them “We’re throwing you in the pit!” When students were struggling they would tell us they were in the pit.

It was amazing to see the change. They enjoyed the challenge. Students that got out of the pit easily asked to be put back in with another more difficult challenges and students learned to respect that people get out of the pit at different speeds and with different tools. It worked so well, we’re using it with our class again this year.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried something similar? What else do you want to know about our journey? Let us know in the comments below.Love the Ninjas





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