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Zero Learning Zone

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

Author: Dawn Mitchell


Hello everyone!

I want to share a powerful article that I read recently from a professional development I participated in with Personalized Learning called “Zero Learning Zone.”  The article makes the point that our profession is rich with learning opportunities, but many times we can act, consciously or unconsciously, in ways that block our own learning. The author points out five unintentional pitfalls that put us in the zero learning zone that we can be aware of in order to be proactive in growing professionally. The article also includes five tools that we can use to help take ownership of our own professional growth.

Highlights from the article include:

Blindspots: We often miss the chance to learn because we do not see that we need to learn. James Prochaska, an expert on the personal experience of change, and colleagues identified the first stage of change as pre-contemplation—not realizing we need to learn so that we can change our situations (Prochaska, Norcross, & DiClimente, 1994).

We don’t think the learning is worth it: Two factors need to be in place for us to grow and change (Patterson et. al, 2008). First, we need to believe we can do what we are considering. Second, we need to believe that what we are considering is worth the effort. If either factor is missing, we are much less likely to embrace the opportunity to learn or change.

Identity: Our deepest learning experiences usually challenge us to re-think "the stories we tell ourselves about who we are" (Stone & Heen, 2015, p. 23) and reconsider what kind of people we are, our efficacy, ethics, and overall place in the world. But we are resistant to any experience that causes us to re-evaluate what we think to be true about ourselves.

Hope (or, more precisely, its absence): Gallup Senior Researcher Shane Lopez (2013) summarizes a three-part process for hope, first identified by University of Kansas researcher Rick Snyder. To have hope we need goals, pictures of the future [that] identify an idea of where we want to go, what we want to accomplish, who we want to be" (p. 24). Second, hope involves agency, our belief that we have control over our lives and that we can meet our goals.

Fear: When I discussed the Zero-Learning Zone with colleagues, a word I heard frequently was fear. We might be afraid that we are going to embarrass ourselves or fail.

The good news is there are things we can do to change our perspective and move out of the learning zone.

Flip your perspective: One way to move forward as a learner is to gain a different perspective on how you lead and teach, or how your students learn. The easiest way to do this is to video record yourself doing something important, such as teaching a lesson. If you're not ready for video, try the audio record function on your phone. Interview students to hear their perspectives on your teaching. This will force you to see or hear things outside of your own perspective and, yes, learn.

Create specific goals: Well-crafted goals can provide guideposts that nudge you out of your comfort zone. As Heidi Grant Halvorson (2012) says, "Taking the time to get specific and spell out exactly what you want to achieve removes the possibility of settling for less—of telling yourself that what you've done is good enough. It also makes the course of action you need to take much clearer.” (p. 6)

Utilize design thinking: Design thinking is a methodology for creating and problem solving that applies the strategies of design to real-world challenges and opportunities. A teacher who applies design thinking to achieve a goal in her classroom might, for example, decide that she wants a higher level of engaged conversation during classroom dialogue.

Keep it simple and targeted: Learning may seem overwhelming if we try to accomplish too much all at once. Choose one learning target and stick with it until it is accomplished.

Treat yourself with compassion: Teachers are often harder on themselves than anyone else would ever be, and certainly harder on themselves than they would ever consider being with a friend. I believe educators need to be more compassionate toward themselves. Daniel Pink (2018) offers a simple way for doing that. He suggests that when we are disappointed by something we've done, we should write ourselves an email expressing compassion or understanding, imagining "what someone one who cares about you might say.” (p. 143) When we step out of the Zero-Learning Zone we will have times when we screw up or experience fear. To keep learning, we need to adopt what Pink refers to as a "the converse corollary of the Golden Rule: … to treat [ourselves] as [we] would others.” (p. 143)

I love how the article ends with a call to action!

Leading Our Own Learning:  Teacher-led learning has great potential because we can influence and inspire students when we model our own learning. When we improve, we have greater impact on students' achievement and well-being. Additionally, when we lead our own learning, when we see more and learn how to act more effectively, our lives improve. Learning is our lifeblood, and we live better when we learn more.  To experience that learning, however, we need to step outside of the Zero-Learning Zone. We need to demonstrate the courage it takes to watch ourselves on video, interview students, experiment with prototypes and iterations, stay hopeful, draw on the resources that already exist, and forgive ourselves when things don't work out. What matters is that we intentionally keep learning. When we do, our children's lives will be better, and so will our own.



Dawn Mitchell

South Carolina ASCD President



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