The Learning Pit

“The Learning Pit has become one of the most powerful and popular heuristics of learning over the past 20 years.”

Professor Barry Hymer, University of Cumbria

The Learning Pit encourages everyone to step out of their comfort zone.

The Learning Pit encourages everyone to step out of their comfort zone. It was created by James Nottingham (2007) to support a culture of challenge, curiosity, reflection and resilience. It is popular amongst educators and parents as a way to encourage and structure questioning, reflection and metacognition. You will find millions of references to the Learning Pit online, with books, blogs, news articles, videos, and school reports drawing attention to its usability and impact.  Read more

Opportunities to Hear About the Learning Pit:

Access the Pit Podcast recordings to hear James Nottingham explaining the purpose & history of the Learning Pit
Sign up to the Challenging Learning Webinars for an in-depth exploration of the Learning Pit

Quick Links

About The Learning Pit

Books

Free Graphics

Lesson Ideas

Videos

Quick Links

About The Learning Pit®

Books

Free Graphics

Lesson Ideas

Videos

An Introduction to The Learning Pit

Learning Pit - classic version 2

Step out of your comfort zone

Learning occurs when you step out of your comfort zone. And yet, many people are hesitant to take this step for fear of making mistakes or revealing their weaknesses.

That’s when the Learning Pit can help: to encourage and reassure learners that taking risks, asking questions, and trying new things can help them develop their abilities and deepen their understanding.

Learning Pit - classic version 2

Step out of your comfort zone

Learning occurs when you step out of your comfort zone. And yet, many people are hesitant to take this step for fear of making mistakes or revealing their weaknesses.

That’s when the Learning Pit can help: to encourage and reassure learners that taking risks, asking questions, and trying new things can help them develop their abilities and deepen their understanding.

Learning Pit - classic version 2

Step out of your comfort zone

Learning occurs when you step out of your comfort zone. And yet, many people are hesitant to take this step for fear of making mistakes or revealing their weaknesses.

That’s when the Learning Pit can help: to encourage and reassure learners that taking risks, asking questions, and trying new things can help them develop their abilities and deepen their understanding.

Learning is a struggle

The Learning Pit draws attention to the idea that learning is a struggle, intentionally showing thoughts of confusion and frustration.

Its purpose is to reassure, not scare, so that when learners find themselves floundering, they can take comfort from knowing that is a normal part of the learning journey.

Learning Pit - sketch

Learning is a struggle

The Learning Pit draws attention to the idea that learning is a struggle, intentionally showing thoughts of confusion and frustration.

Its purpose is to reassure, not scare, so that when learners find themselves floundering, they can take comfort from knowing that is a normal part of the learning journey.

Learning Pit - sketch
Learning Pit - sketch

Learning is a struggle

The Learning Pit draws attention to the idea that learning is a struggle, intentionally showing thoughts of confusion and frustration.

Its purpose is to reassure, not scare, so that when learners find themselves floundering, they can take comfort from knowing that is a normal part of the learning journey.

Learning Pit - classic version 1

James Nottingham developed the ‘Learning Challenge’

James Nottingham developed the ‘Learning Challenge’ (2010) to help fellow teachers guide their students through the Learning Pit.

Using the steps described in his books, lessons become more conceptually rich and thought-provoking; make better use of questioning and metacognition; and ultimately lead to deeper understanding.

Learning Pit - classic version 1

James Nottingham developed the ‘Learning Challenge’

James Nottingham developed the ‘Learning Challenge’ (2010) to help fellow teachers guide their students through the Learning Pit.

Using the steps described in his books, lessons become more conceptually rich and thought-provoking; make better use of questioning and metacognition; and ultimately lead to deeper understanding.

Learning Pit - classic version 1

James Nottingham developed the ‘Learning Challenge’

James Nottingham developed the ‘Learning Challenge’ (2010) to help fellow teachers guide their students through the Learning Pit.

Using the steps described in his books, lessons become more conceptually rich and thought-provoking; make better use of questioning and metacognition; and ultimately lead to deeper understanding.

An everyday version of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

James Nottingham created the Learning Pit as an everyday version of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978). It also has parallels with the SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982).

By going through the Learning Pit, participants can develop a Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2006) and boost their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

Learning Pit - classic version 4

An everyday version of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

James Nottingham created the Learning Pit as an everyday version of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978). It also has parallels with the SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982).

By going through the Learning Pit, participants can develop a Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2006) and boost their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

Learning Pit - classic version 4
Learning Pit - classic version 4

An everyday version of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

James Nottingham created the Learning Pit as an everyday version of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978). It also has parallels with the SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982).

By going through the Learning Pit, participants can develop a Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2006) and boost their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IMUAOhuO78&feature=emb_logo

Learning Pit Workshops & Keynotes

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Mentions in the Media

BBC Radio 4, UK
The Learning Pit reference begins at 40:13
The extended piece about ‘Snowplough Parents’ begins at 37:26
with Andrea Samadi

The Learning Pit on Social Media

Blogs About the Learning Pit®

Cambridge Assessment International Education
Education Week
Midlothian, Scotland
NACE: National Association for Able Children in Education
Chemical Education
Laughology
Educate Bravely – Educators rock

 

Educate Bravely – Re-imagining learning

 

Educate Bravely – My journey over sea to develop some

 

Classroom Blogs – Hawthornden Primary 4 blog

 

Classroom Blogs – Room 5 and 6 South Hornby School blog

 

Classroom Blogs – Two teachers one blog
The Learning Pit – MisskDolan blog

Trademark and Copyright

James Nottingham and his company, Challenging Learning, have been granted the trademark for “The Learning Pit” by the Intellectual Property Organization (IPO). This confers the exclusive right to use The Learning Pit® in:

  • Educational services; educational consultancy; organisation of study tours.
  • Business management consultancy in the field of leadership development.

James Nottingham and Challenging Learning grant permission to use the term “The Learning Pit” and the associated images found on this site for educational, non-profit purposes only. No commercial use is permitted unless with written permission from James Nottingham.

In all cases, you should use the following reference:

The Learning Pit by James Nottingham
www.ChallengingLearning.com

When writing about The Learning Pit, you should also refer to at least one of these books by James Nottingham:

  • Nottingham J. A. (2010). Challenging Learning. Berwick Upon Tweed: JN, pp183-215
  • Nottingham, J.A. (2016). Challenging Learning (2nd ed.). Abingdon, UK: Routledge, pp109-126
  • Nottingham, J. A. (2017). The Learning Challenge: How to Guide Your Students Through the Learning Pit. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

When drawing your own representation of The Learning Pit, you should use the following:

Illustration by (your name)
From the Learning Pit by James Nottingham

We advise you to ensure the right-hand-side of the Learning Pit is higher than the left, so as to give the correct impression that going through the pit will result in an enhanced understanding. For example, the illustration on the left was the first draft seen in a classroom in the Middle East. The version of the right is the amended version which is much more accurate.

Common Questions & Answers

Where Did the Learning Pit Come From?

James Nottingham’s first inspiration was Philosophy for Children (P4C). As a teenager, he hated school – partly because of personal circumstance and partly because he resented the outdated content and teaching methods of the 1980s. So, when he came across P4C in the early 1990’s, he took to it like a duck to water; here was an approach to learning that questions, challenges, inquiries and encourages healthy scepticism. It teaches students ‘how’ to think rather than ‘what’ to think and he loved it. Still does in fact.

The second inspiration was something he rallied against – the national curriculum. Not that he’s against curricula in general, but in this case, he was: the first national curriculum for England & Wales, introduced in 1993, pushed creativity and the arts to the edge of school life, replacing them with a ‘tick box’ culture in which teachers had literally hundreds of descriptors they had to ‘tick off’ as soon as they had taught them. It was as if there was a cookbook that had to be followed – using each recipe just the once so that by the end of the year, all students would be well-fed and ready to be weighed.

Champions of this new curriculum banged the drum of ‘grades and standards’ and rallied against anything thought to be contrary to this, including the arts, creativity – and at the time, P4C (despite the overwhelming evidence that P4C contributes positively towards grades as well as to its central focus of developing critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinking).

This ’curriculum vs. creativity’ debate polarised opinions unnecessarily, setting up a false dichotomy between content and creativity. Many people knew it was possible to have both, but many disagreed and sought to expel ‘extra-curricular’ topics from the timetable. So, it was in this context that James tried to find ways to bridge the gap by showing the benefits of P4C and explaining its approach to improving standards whilst also teaching creatively.

Then, in 2003, James heard John Edwards presenting his ideas about leadership, during which he described Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development (1965) as rather like going through a pit. That was his eureka moment; he thought to himself, whenever he runs P4C sessions, he takes students through a ‘pit’. They start with a concept; interrogate it to the point of confusion; collect together the most important characteristics; and then form a new and better understanding of the concept.

Following the conference, he got in touch with John Edwards and with his blessing, James created what he is now known as the Learning Pit. James also developed four stages to the model: Concept; Conflict; Construct; Consider, and then latterly published his ideas – first in a journal in 2007 and then in his first book, Challenging Learning (2010).

As is so often the case, the term, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ seems absolutely applicable here. From Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp, the creators of Philosophy for Children; to Chris Rowley, a senior lecturer at Charlotte Mason College who introduced James to P4C; John Edwards from the University of Queensland who was the first person James heard talking about a ‘pit’ to describe getting worse before getting better; to those throughout James’s career who have challenged, encouraged and supported him to refine the Learning Pit even further, including Jill Nottingham, Martin Renton, Steve Williams, Will Ord, Barry Hymer, Roger Sutcliffe, Karin Murris, Sara Liptai, Carmen Bergmann and George Telford. All of these people have played their part in helping to shape what has become one of the most popular and enduring heuristics of learning to emerge in the last twenty years.

What Does It Mean to Be ‘In the Learning Pit’?

A person could be said to be ‘in the Learning Pit’ when they are in a state of cognitive conflict. That is to say, when a person has two or more ideas that they agree with but that, when compared side by side, appear to be in conflict with each other. For example, ‘I think that stealing is wrong, but I also think that Robin Hood did the right thing.’

It is important to note that learners are not in the pit when they have no idea. The Learning Pit represents moving beyond a single, basic idea into the situation of having multiple ideas that are as yet unsorted. This happens when a learner purposefully explores inconsistencies, exceptions and contradictions in their own or others’ thinking so as to discover a richer, more complex understanding.

Is the Learning Pit Something to Avoid?

Depends on the context, but ordinarily no – the Learning Pit is not something to be avoided. Of course, if you want a quick answer or resolution, then going into the Learning Pit is probably best avoided. But if you want to be more thoughtful about your answers, more aware of the possibilities and the problems, and more confident in the thoroughness of your understanding, then going into the Learning Pit should always be worth the effort.

Furthermore, when you deliberately and strategically take your students into the Learning Pit, they are likely to develop more resilience, gain greater self-efficacy and build many of the strategies they will need for learning in, and beyond, school.

What Age Range Does the Learning Pit Work With?

If you think it appropriate to encourage a particular age group to step out of their comfort zone, then you could say that the Learning Pit is also relevant to them. The model has been used successfully with students between the ages 3-19 as well as with adults. Books by James Nottingham give examples of using the Learning Pit across the school age range, including Challenging Learning (2010); The Learning Challenge (2017) and The Learning Pit (2020). Furthermore, Challenging Early Learning by Nottingham and Nottingham (2019) gives examples for 3-7-year-olds.

Can the Learning Pit Work for Students with Special Needs?

Depends on the context, but often the answer is yes – with some adjustments. Students with special needs might have difficulty understanding abstract concepts and would therefore need support in the form of concrete examples. For example, if you’re thinking about self-care, then some students will need to see, smell and label clean and dirty things before they can think through the concept of care. Similarly, if thinking about money or health, then it would be wise to have notes and coins to hand for the first example and various healthy and unhealthy foods on show for the second.

Multisensory experiences can also be valuable in terms of bringing concepts to life. It is no good exploring a concept like temperature if your students don’t have a tangible reference point for terms such as ‘hot’ and ‘cold’.

Supporting the communication of learners is often of primary consideration. There are, of course, a number of ways to do this, and different learners will present different communication needs. So, in addition to making the concept tangible and real, you may also need to use a range of augmentative communication strategies.

Props can be very effective links between the tangible experience and the abstract concept. For example:

a. Objects of reference: Something as simple as the minibus keys or seat belt clip from the transport used to and from the physical experience might be enough to make the link in the minds of your students. Picking up a feather during a visit to a bird sanctuary could help your students think back to the topic of animals that fly.

b. Pictures and photographs: Take lots of photographs – preferably with your students in them – and then use these as props when talking about the main concepts back at school.

c. Alternative communication: Students may already be using alternative communication strategies to support their communication. This might be through the use of picture and symbols cards, sign language or communication technology devices. In supporting these students, it is vital to ensure that the vocabulary they are capable of is available to them in relation to the particular concept they are focused on.

For more ideas about working with students with special needs, we recommend you read Section 9.3 in the Learning Challenge: Guiding Students Through the Learning Pit by James Nottingham (2017).

A Learning ‘Pit’ Sounds Negative; Why Can’t It Be a ‘Mountain of Learning’ Instead?

James Nottingham chose a learning ‘pit’ because he wanted to be honest with his students: stepping out of your comfort zone makes you feel uncomfortable (there’s a giveaway in the term!)

James understands why some people might prefer to use something like a ‘mountain of learning’ but his worry is that when someone reaches the top of a mountain, they have a sense of elation and accomplishment – which is certainly not what someone feels when faced with cognitive conflict. Learners tend to feel a sense of achievement at the end of the journey (when they’ve come out of the pit), not halfway through the journey (when they’ve reached the top of a mountain).

Thinking it through a little more, the learning journey we so often go on is one in which we move from 1) thinking we know what we’re doing, to 2) realising we’re not so sure because there’s a lot of conflicting information to sift through, to 3) beginning to see feel some clarity as we sort and connect the new information, to 4) reflecting on what we’ve learnt and how we’ve arrived at this point. If we were to use a ‘mountain of learning’ as our metaphor, then it seems to we’d complete all four stages of learning on the way up the mountain, begging the question – what happens during the descent back down the mountain?

Of course, it is not for us to say what metaphors people should use – that is entirely up to them and their students. On the other hand, we think it isok for James to say no, the Learning Pit (and all the ideas that go with it) should not be explained as a mountain of learning!

Should We Help Students Climb Out of the Learning Pit?

If the concept at the heart of the Learning Pit experience is one that you really need your students to know confidently, then yes – help them out of the pit. If, however, the concept is more obviously philosophical or open-ended and could help your students become more aware of context and caveats, then it is often better to give them the time and space to exit the pit in their own time.

For example, if the concept is a mathematical term such as fraction, number, ratio or equal then typically, you would want to help your students to climb out of the pit. That is not to say that the Learning Pit doesn’t work in maths – in fact, it can work very well; nor is it to suggest by ‘helping your students out of the pit’, that we mean you should do the work for them! You should still question, challenge and engage your students so that they have to work out how to get out of the pit themselves.

On the other hand, if the concepts are more open-ended – for example, many of the concepts in literature, citizenship/SEL, or social studies, then there are very often benefits to leaving your students in the Learning Pit long after the lesson has finished. Take for example, bravery, freedom, justice, pace, pattern, shape or growth – these concepts lend themselves to students thinking that on the one hand, the concept means X; at other times it means Y; and, with some exceptions or situations, it could mean Z. That is not to say we want students to be permanently confused, but it is to say there is a strength in being aware of the conditions and stipulations of each concept’s application.

So, the quick answer is, yes – help your students to climb out the pit by guiding and encouraging them; and at other times, leave them in the Learning Pit so that they continue to wonder and investigate long after the lesson has ended.

Does the Learning Pit Work with Adults?

The Learning Pit works with adults as much as with children. The language associated with the Learning Pit is written in child-friendly terms so it might be necessary to adapt some of the terms to suit adults better, but otherwise the theory and strategies are just as applicable. Indeed, reference has been made to the Learning Pit in contexts that are generally the sole preserve of adults. For example, an article entitled ‘Develop Mental Agility with a Plunge into the Learning Pit’ appeared in the Financial Times in the UK in July 2016 and the model has been referred to on a number of occasions on BBC Radio 4 and in Apple Podcasts.

The Learning Pit could lend itself very well to professional learning. For example, a series of planning sessions to develop a school curriculum or scheme of work could be guided by the four stages of the Learning Pit. We’d recommend that you select the concepts important to your students’ learning then use some thinking strategies to inquire into the relevance and meaning of each concept. Challenge and question each other. Try taking each other in the pit so that the resulting cognitive conflict leads to creative ideas about how to introduce or teach those concepts to students.

Another way to use the Learning Pit with adults is to recognise when teams are struggling with a problem. You could then reassure them that thinking through issues very often requires a willingness to confuse each other before then emerging with better and more complete solutions. Indeed, very often it is better to take time to understand a problem first and then create solutions rather than jumping straight into solution-focused thinking. Or as quote often attributed to Einstein goes, ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.’

What is the Difference Between the Learning Pit and the Learning Challenge?

James Nottingham named his original model, the Learning Pit. Later, he developed a full framework for lessons that included going through the Learning Pit – he named this framework, the Learning Challenge. Thus, in effect, when you experience a sense of cognitive conflict, you could be said to be in the Learning Pit. Whereas, when you are using the four stages of concept, conflict, construct, consider, you could say you are going through the Learning Challenge.

In many ways, the distinction isn’t important – feel free to use whichever term you like best. Where it does become slightly more important is when trying to decide whether the book, The Learning Challenge (2017) is something different to James Nottingham’s latest book, The Learning Pit (2020). The quick answer to that is, yes – the Learning Challenge is much more extensive and in-depth, whereas The Learning Pit is meant as a shorter introduction to James Nottingham’s ideas.

So, Where Do I Start?

We recommend that you start with one or more of these options:

Display an image of the Learning Pit

Download some of the free graphics we have available on this site and/or give your students the opportunity to create their own illustrations using the guidelines shown on this webpage and in James Nottingham’s books.

Talk through the purpose of the Learning Pit

Share an image of the Learning Pit with your students and tell them it shows what happens when learning something new. Use commentary along the lines of …

To begin with, you feel fairly confident that you know the answer or are able to perform the skill. However, once you start to investigate or try things further, you realise it’s not as straightforward as you first thought. This means you are stepping out of your comfort zone, which in turn means you are learning. This is what we call going into the Learning Pit. It is when you have two or more ideas that you agree with, but which seem to be in conflict with each other. Don’t worry – this ‘conflict’ is normal. In fact, if it doesn’t happen then you probably won’t be able to make much progress.

When you find yourself in the Learning Pit, look for connections, patterns or possibilities. This should help you begin to make more sense of the ideas or actions you are trying. Ask others for help. Offer your advice to others. Work together to understand the problems and then find some solutions. As you build some clarity or confidence, this will take you out of the Learning Pit to a sense of eureka. When you hit this eureka moment, you will know the effort has been worth it because you’ll have a sense of achievement like no other.

At the end of a Learning Pit journey, I will encourage you to think about what you’ve learned; which strategies you found most useful; and what you might do next time to make things even more successful for yourself and others.

Create a Learning Pit culture

As you introduce the Learning Pit into your teaching, remember to also bring the following attitudes with you:

  • I am interested in and respect my students’ ideas.
  • I will show interest by listening to my students, questioning them and encouraging them to elaborate.
  • I am confident my students are capable of coming up with relevant questions, opinions, reasons, examples and comparisons.
  • I will work as much as I can with my students’ questions, understandings, interests and values.
  • I am creating a classroom community in which we are a group of thinkers who can tackle questions together and work towards the best answers and understandings.
  • We should all feel secure enough to take intellectual risks.
  • Going through the Learning Pit leads to deeper and more enduring understanding.

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