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Ross Urquhart

Pushing beyond the comfort zone

Ross Urquhart asks, is it good for pupils to always be happy at school?

Posted by Stephanie Broad | January 06, 2016 | Teaching

It is very easy to judge a good lesson in a school by how happy the pupils are during and after the content has been delivered. However, following a recent training course, I am now aiming – believe it or not – to make children unhappy in class, to take them out of their comfort zone. The fact of the matter is that most children – and girls especially – are desperate to be good and to receive praise from their teacher for getting questions right. From a very early age children learn that the easier the task is the higher the likelihood that they will be able to demonstrate their intelligence with a correct answer and get that positive feeling when they are told that they are right or that they are clever. This feeling is a nice one, it makes them happy and therefore it is addictive and can be desired throughout our classrooms. The problem, of course, is that it can make children reluctant to tackle more complex tasks for fear that they will be unable to receive the praise that they crave; this is what we would commonly refer to as 'coasting'. There is also a tendency for coasting children to shy away from tasks where there is more than one possible answer or problems which can be tackled with a variety of methods. 

The aim, of course, is to ensure that there is sufficient challenge for all pupils at all times in our lessons.

Just as it is wrong to make work too easy, it is also wrong to make it too hard. If children cannot understand a concept initially, they are going to be de-motivated and the end product will be unsatisfactory. This where the concept of 'learning pit theory' comes in and allows us to encourage our pupils to demand suitably challenging tasks which will allow them to be stretched intellectually and seek the self-satisfaction that comes from being able to do something that was previously beyond them. 

If the level of challenge is judged correctly, a 'cognitive wobble' will be introduced which means that new questions will be asked of the individual and they will not be able to complete the task easily or straight away. This is when they enter the 'learning pit' and have to discover/practise new skills, undertake research, work as a team and ask appropriate questions to allow them to progress through the task. Greater clarity of understanding will gradually be realized as they start to climb out of the pit and there is likely to be a eureka moment when the activity is completed or they have achieved something for the first time. This eureka moment brings with it some extremely strong and valuable emotions, such as pride, joy and satisfaction, which can be equally addictive and far better in the long run. 

The aim of this theory is that pupils will demand suitably challenging work from their teachers and not be content with tasks that do not stimulate them intellectually – asking for harder work because they want to have the eureka moment again and again and again. Those are children that I would like to have in my classroom! There is a reason why the word eureka is used to describe the sensation that is felt when a pupil climbs out of the learning pit – eureka in Greek means 'I found it!’, which is much better than ‘my teacher or peers found it and gave it to me’. 

Of course I do not want my classes full of unhappy children, but I do want children who are receptive to challenge and who have the confidence to try new things, to persevere, to apply thinking skills and demonstrate resilience in pursuit of eureka. 

Ross Urquhart is head of junior school at Northampton High School W:    

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