Learning and the Comfort Zone

In an effort to consistently apply critical thought to what we do at The Iron Yard, we often post food for thought around education and learning. Recently we discussed comfort zones and the place where the best learning happens.

The concept is incredibly valuable for our staff, but it challenged me personally to think about how often I settle for comfort and familiarity when discomfort and challenges are what I really need in order to grow.

Here are a great quote and chart from a book called How to Teach Adults by Dan Spalding that formed the basis of our internal discussion at The Iron Yard. The entire book is worth a read whether you work in education or not.

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.1

—Dan Spalding in How to Teach Adults


1. You can read more about the book How to Teach Adults and its author, Dan Spalding, on the official website.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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