Thoughts on education: learning and comfort

We absolutely love teaching people how to wield the powers of technology. The side that most people see is an instructor in front of a classroom or helping individual students during lab time.

What many people don’t see is the learning that our staff does behind the scenes. We’re constantly evaluating new technologies for our curricula, but we’re also studying the craft of teaching. Educating is far more than knowing a lot about a subject and explaining it to someone else. Our instructors are students themselves, always refining the skills and knowledge they use to guide our student body.

Teaching programming certainly has its unique characteristics, but good foundational education philosophy is often subject-agnostic. One resource we began using in the earliest days of The Iron Yard was a book called How to Teach Adults by Dan Spalding. The author shares lessons learned through years of teaching in a variety of contexts and many of his stories come from his time teaching ESL classes to adults.

There’s a wealth of information in the book, but one principle that was particularly salient to what we do at The Iron Yard was a discussion of student comfort zones and where the best learning actually happens.

Most of our students are dealing with high emotional stakes—attempting career change, using savings, quitting jobs, maintaining families, all while attending our classes. It’s hard. Not only the coursework, but the mental and emotional constitution required to stomach how crazy it feels to deal with everything simultaneously.

The good news is that deep learning happens when we are outside of our comfort zones. Here’s a quote from the book:

Students can’t learn when they’re comfortable.

All humans instinctively stay in their comfort zone – a literal and metaphorical space where everything is familiar and easy. When it comes to learning, a student’s comfort zone is receiving the information they’re used to in the formats they’re used to, engaging it in ways they’re used to at the pace that they’re used to.

It’s hard to get yourself out of your own comfort zone.That’s one reason people take classes – to get information they’re not used to (new facts, new perspectives), in formats they’re not used to (lectures, academic writing), engaging it in new ways (group activities, portfolio projects) at a faster (or more deliberate) pace. Whether they know it or not, students come to you because they’ve hit the limit of what they can learn in their comfort zone.

This leads me to conclude that, in order to maximize student learning, teachers must make their students uncomfortable. Your job is to create a thoughtful, supportive environment that invites (or forces) students to attempt new challenges and learn from them. Reward risk taking, even if students are not immediately successful, because those risks help students get out of their comfort zone and break through their old boundaries. Get students into the discomfort zone as much as possible. That’s where learning lives.

Getting people out of their comfort zones, though, is only half the battle. Educators must be very careful not to push students into the “alarm zone.” Spaulding describes this as the point “where students feel unsafe and shut down.” Here’s a chart from the book that expresses these zones visually:

the-iron-yard-education-thoughts-learning-comfort-dan-spalding-how-to-teach-adults-learning-comfort-zone

When the emotional stakes are high, we have a duty to walk a very fine line in terms of helping our students get out of their normal comfort zones (into the discomfort zone—the learning zone), but keep them out of the alarm zone. We take this very seriously and our Instructors and Campus Directors talk often about the type of environment we need to create in order to find the balance that best supports learning.

It’s very common for us to tell people that The Iron Yard is a difficult program, but that difficulty is well-thought-through and calculated, then applied individually to each student by our Campus Directors and Instructors.

Learning a new skill and launching a new career – no matter what the subject – is difficult. Many coding bootcamps are difficult. But being difficult for difficulty’s sake, or even difficulty for the sake of ‘weeding people out,’ probably isn’t the best approach for optimal learning.

2 Comments

  1. I would not likely have thought of the “high emotional stakes”–I’m so used to teaching adults and kids who are totally in their comfort zone with no such high stakes. I love that you take advantage, however, of their state of urgency by challenging them–perhaps moreso than “regular” students. I’m interested to see how your challenging environment compares to others.

  2. Eric Dodds

    Hey Jay, thanks so much for weighing in. We do operate in a very exciting and challenging context. We’d love to weigh in on how our environment compares to others. Could you give us a few examples of other environments you had in mind?

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