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The unexpected benefits of being uncomfortable when prioritising growth

As an educator, you would be familiar with the anxiety some students feel as they struggle to learn a new skill or concept. While the care you feel for your students may make it difficult to observe this struggle, we know that when a student is supported to work through the emotional challenges of new learning, real growth will come.

How healthy is discomfort when learning?

When we write about discomfort, we are referring to experiencing vulnerability while in a supportive and safe context which drives learning. It goes without saying that we are not referring to unacceptable levels of discomfort or danger that ignore our duty of care to our students, or to our colleagues.

When tertiary education students are diving their way into the wonderful world of educational psychology, it’s not long before they come across the theory of ‘The Zone of Proximal Development’ by Vygotsky. Essentially, this zone is the space between what a learner can do without help, versus what they can do with guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.

In a sporting context, this scaffolded and guided approach to stretching the capacity of a person through interactions with others is very familiar to us. How often have you noticed that your golf or tennis game has lifted as a consequence of playing against someone just a little better than you? This healthy level of discomfort creates the opportunity for growth.

Growth shouldn’t slow after tertiary education

If we are aware of the benefits for our students of being stretched outside of their comfort zones in their learning through guided experiences, why isn’t it common practice to apply this to staff in our schools? It is ironic that as adult learners we rarely apply this knowledge and wisdom to our own professional development and to the planning of professional development for the staff in our schools. Similarly, we are comfortable with asking our students to be courageous and vulnerable in their learning and around their peers, but do we require these qualities of ourselves?

If the zone of proximal development theory is helpful to educators in planning for our students, we need to consider the application of this theory to adult learners. Let’s emphasise the benefits of vulnerability and discomfort in the pursuit of new skills and enhanced attributes at all stages. How long has it been since your capacity for creative thinking was truly challenged? Have you recently engaged your critical thinking and problem solving skills in realms beyond your own areas of expertise? Do you or your colleagues deliberately seek out others with the view to looking at a challenge from a different perspective, or prefer to remain in silos of safe thinking?

Modelling growth

If we want to commit to growth as individuals, and to being powerful role models of this commitment to our students, it is vital that we too seek the Zone of Proximal Development. This open heartedness to vulnerability and discomfort in learning is made all the more powerful when it is enacted, actively and openly by the leaders in a school. Teachers and staff are significant influencers to students and should model the behaviour they seek to foster.

If you would like to partner with Be Challenged in the design and delivery of programs which stretch and challenge your team to develop a sense of their full capacity, get in touch today.

Thanks for reading.

Lisa Kelliher,

Head of People and Culture and Educational Consultant, Be Challenged

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