March 22nd, 2017

Learning Outside Your Comfort Zone

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stepping outside comfort zone

When we learn something outside the comfort zone, we attempt to acquire knowledge or skills in an area where we’re lacking. Part of the discomfort derives from learning something we anticipate will be difficult. We have no idea how to do it, or we think it requires abilities we don’t have or have in meager amounts. Moreover, poor performance or outright failure lurk as likely possibilities. In other words, it’s going to be hard and require concentration, and what we’re struggling to do, others can accomplish beautifully, seemingly without effort. Their skills, and our obvious lack of them, raise questions about our merits as a learner and maybe even our worth as a person.

Teaching Professor Blog A colleague wrote of her efforts to master Italian, “I’ve been reminded about how difficult learning can be when you step out of your comfort zone and learn a skill for which you don’t have any particular aptitude. I’m NOT a language person, so as I’m learning Italian, I have to repeat words approximately 850 times before I have even a chance to recall and use them. I’m trying to practice what I preach for students and approach this with a growth mind-set!” Another colleague on sabbatical is taking a course on mentoring and coaching that includes demonstration of these newly learned skills. “I am learning so much and am feeling the pressure that comes when you have to demonstrate something you’ve just barely learned,” she noted.

I wonder if learning outside the comfort zone isn’t especially difficult for faculty. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be. We’ve devoted years to learning, but most of what we know resides in one area. We’re experts at learning more about what we already know and love. And we’re used to having our learning expertise recognized—by students, colleagues, and sometimes even at home. However, plop us down in a discipline unlike our own, task us with learning a skill we don’t have, and suddenly, we look and act exactly like our students. And that’s the very reason this kind of learning has all sorts of positive implications for teaching. It’s good every now and then to be reacquainted with feeling stupid.

I’m currently on a mission to better decipher icons, which seems to be how everyone from software companies to car manufacturers prefer to communicate these days. It should be easy, but it isn’t, if you’re as into text as I am. Visuals don’t make sense to me, but understanding icons is quickly becoming a necessity. The last rental car I drove did not have any text on the dashboard, and I couldn’t make most of the driving essentials work. I had to go outside the car to see if I had the lights on. I spent five minutes trying to pop the gas cap and never did get figure out how to spray some wiper fluid on the dirty windshield. I’ve tried studying the icons, thinking that if I looked long and hard, I’d see in them the shape of what they represent. No luck. So, I’m working on memorizing the most common ones with modest amounts of success, and I continually melt down over how easy it would be to just put the words on the switches for the lights, wipers, gas cap, and blinkers. Then there’s the radio, which used to run perfectly fine with an on-off switch and a dial but is now littered with all kinds of icons and options.

Learning outside one’s comfort zone is equally challenging and beneficial for students. They love those safe, familiar courses where the teacher tells them exactly what to do, where the assignments are like the ones they’ve done in lots of other courses, and where the rules are all ones they know, may not like, but can live with. Is there value in giving them an assignment unlike anything they’ve ever done before? Absolutely. It upends what they think they know about learning and about themselves as learners. There’s a piece in the April issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter about a teacher who has students memorize and recite a poem—you can imagine how positively students respond to an assignment like that! She writes an eloquent defense of doing so, explaining how the assignment gave students a whole new perspective on literary text.

True, learning outside the comfort zone is anything but comfortable. But do it and watch how it changes things, most notably teaching.

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  • valaryo

    I agree that experts often find embracing the learning of something totally new very difficult. Shunryu Suzuki expresses it in a zen way as “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” But the possibilities aren’t missing just hiding behind a fear of failure which puts experts in a defensive posture. They worry that a failure in this new endeavor will somehow spill over and taint their status as an expert. It takes some patience and nudging but for those willing to truly sit in their learners’ seats and experience learning again anew, the benefits are immense. I work to help professionals to see the value of what I call “proactive reactivity”. Things are constantly changing in the world and you can’t always plan for every detail but by continually being a learner in different areas of inquiry you can better prepare yourself to deal with the stresses of change and come up with more creative and innovative solutions.

  • Perry Shaw

    Great stuff!
    Severe discomfort can create the dissonance that is needed to catalyse transformational learning.
    Learning outside our comfort zone is needed for rich paradigmatic change.

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