Freedom, Shackles and the Comfort Zone

I’ve read a lot of posts and articles recently encouraging teachers to get out of their comfort zones and thought I’d start by sharing this graphic from www.teachthought.com.

And while I don’t disagree with anything suggested in this post, I wonder how aware we actually are about what is, and isn’t, within our own comfort zone? How do we define our own comfort zone? How do we take those first tentative steps out of our comfort zone? Is it even necessary?

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, comfort zone can be defined as a situation in which you feel comfortable and in which your ability and determination are not being tested

Doesn’t sound like too bad a place to be, if you ask me! But is it really the best a teacher can do for their students? If we spend a lesson testing our learners’ ability and determination, surely it is only fair that we should be put to the same test? So, how do we know, exactly, what might be in (or out of) our comfort zone?

For the purposes of this post I conducted a little (extremely unscientific) research. I asked teachers from around the world ‘How would you define your comfort zone, as a teacher?’ Firstly, yes, I phrased the question badly – I assumed that the concept of a comfort zone would be universal – turns out, it’s not! There were lots of responses involving coffee, a comfy chair, no children and even the pub. Many more responses were about the type of learners or lessons that people like to teach; C1/2, business, adults, poetry etc. What very few seemed to do, was to equate it to their methods, activities and style of teaching. Maybe defining our comfort zones by what we enjoy is no bad thing though.

My favourite answer (thank you Philip Shigeo Brown) was ‘A developmental place where we often strive to be and yet strive to grow beyond by getting out of it’. I reckon he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Or at least he would have done if people were actually aware of the existence of their own comfort zone.

Senninger defined the different learning zones long these lines;

The Comfort Zone – the area in which you feel you have mastery, where you are happy, content and confident in your abilities.

The Learning Zone – where you stretch yourself, try something new, feel a little discomfort but not much in the way of stress. Looking at new ideas and thinking ‘yes, I could probably give that a go’.

The Panic Zone – does exactly what is says on the tin, new practices which genuinely scare the heebie-jeebies out of you. Stress on an unproductive level. Cold sweats, nightmares, irrational urges to go to the loo 47 times in 5 minutes, you get the idea.

On the whole, I get this explanation and I like it. I would probably make just one teensy change…

I don’t see how the lines can be defined, there must be degrees of challenge? Surely there can’t be some arbitrary tipping point at which things go from stretch to utter terror? (having said that, my first conference presentation came jolly close…). To my mind there are some ideas that I am more comfortable with trying than others; some practices I would more readily incorporate into my teaching than others; some contexts that I would find more challenging, terrifying and stressful than others, but would still give it a go (as I do, periodically, with teenagers) and some stuff that I would just never even countenance (not much – but some).

The thing is, as we stretch ourselves, the things that start off panic inducing, gradually move into our learning (or stretch) zone. As the comfort zone becomes wider, the slightly scary thing becomes the comfortable thing and the terrifying thing also moves – to become a somewhat less terrifying thing. Imagine the plughole in the bath – that big hairy spider will go down it eventually, as the water spirals round.

If you google the topic you will find loads of ‘inspirational’ graphics along these lines.

Now, I don’t know about you – but I just find this plain depressing. Is it really suggesting that unless we take some almighty leap into the unknown, we will never be any more than mediocre, with sad mediocre lives and an uninspiring outlook on life? This is just unrealistic (a bit like a celeb’s Instagram accounts – where everything is perfect, they all wake up with a full face of make-up, a kale smoothie in their hand and no-one sweats at the gym). If we used this as ‘inspiration’ we’d NEVER get to the ‘good stuff’ because it’s just too far away!

The key is to take little steps. Reflect on your teaching, see where your own comfort zone lies and then decide where and whether you should move on a little (or a lot). Find something that interests you; a question you’d like the answer to, a new activity that helps your learners, collaborate with a colleague, read, observe a colleague and copy something that you feel works well, research other approaches to a recurrent classroom problem.

Your comfort zone is just that, comfortable. It isn’t a prison but neither should it be your goal (I was going to say it isn’t a gaol but neither should it be your goal – but wasn’t sure if old English words were universal and, actually, it looks a bit naff, but hay ho).

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable in what you do (although there have been suggestions that the boredom of staying within your comfort zone may contribute to burnout) but, just for kicks, maybe add just a frisson of stretch.

References

Senninger, 2000 – Learning Zone Model; Abenteuer leiten – in Abenteuern lernen (Facilitating adventures – learning in adventures). Münster: Ökotopia Verlag

Ed Tech – The Journey or the Destination?

I recently read a post which was, basically, a teacher evangelising about using technology in the classroom. She said ‘I am passionate about my mission to get all of our teachers to embrace technology’ (or words to that effect). In the same week I read a post that was entitled ‘How to Ace Your Next Observation Lesson’, the first idea was to include ‘some sort of’ tech. apparently lesson observers just go nuts for that sort of thing. But why?

Are these people suggesting that all tech is good? That having tech in your lesson somewhere automatically elevates a mediocre lesson to a great lesson? It would seem so. I remember being told by the supposedly expert teaching team at the FE college I was working in a few years ago, that I should ‘use Face Book’ with my learners between classes. It is worth bearing in mind both that the learners in question were adult pre A1 level and that I had never used Face Book. There was no explanation as to HOW I should (or even could) use it, nor WHY it was apparently such an amazing idea to supplement their learning this way. It seemed that they just thought that tech was good, tech was modern, tech was the sign of a progressive learning environment, tech made everything better (and don’t get me started on the lesson observations that were marked down because I didn’t use the interactive features of the whiteboard…).

Using technology in and between lessons has to be done to improve the overall experience for our learners. Using tech for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone. We may see an interesting idea while tumbling down the internet rabbit hole and think ‘hmm, that looks fun I’ll use it my class’ – but first we should ask ourselves – WHY should we use it? HOW will it help our learners? WHERE does it fit with our lesson? and ARE our learners able to use it?

The SAMR model (Puentedura) takes these questions one step further and gets us to evaluate the tech by its application and purpose.

To better familiarise yourself with the whole SAMR approach there is an excellent video here. The basic idea is to reflect on why the tech is being used, is it merely as an adjunct? (such as replacing pen and paper with a screen and keyboard) or does it allow us to achieve something that would previously have been inconceivable? (like collaborating on a podcast with students from a school in a different country). The SAMR model also ensures that we consider the use of the tech in question, is it just for fun (which is not necessarily a bad thing – ‘brain breaks’ can aid learning) or is there a pedagogical purpose?

We need to be picky when it comes to tech, we need to evaluate what it is and why we are using it. There are loads of fantastic apps, programmes and software available out there – but we have to be sure that we are adding value to the learning experience with them, not just ‘teching’ for the sake of it.

References

Ruben R. Puentedura. Transformation, Technology, and Education. (2006)

6 Ways to Increase Your Learners’ Vocabulary

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Spaced repetition – once introduced, keep using the vocab so learners become familiar with it – review new vocabulary at the end of each lesson and the beginning of the next. Encourage the use of flashcards and/or apps like Quizlet and Brainscape for repetition between lessons. Typically, a word needs to be used 14 times before it is considered ‘learned’.

Teach in Context

Learners need to have somewhere to ‘put’ new vocabulary., if it is taught in context, studies have shown that they are more likely to retain it than words in isolation. Context also helps with comprehension of new vocabulary. So, if it is not relevant to the lesson – don’t introduce it yet!.

Read

Learners need to understand 95% (Laufer) of a text to make it enjoyable and comprehensible. Reading is an excellent way to be introduced to new vocabulary in context. Try graded readers, newspapers, magazines, internet articles – anything that interests the learner (sport, music, film reviews or even whole novels).

Teach Word Formations

Introduce learners to the different affixes that, using the same word stem, give a different meaning. With a knowledge of these prefixes & suffixes, learners can rapidly increase their working vocabulary. A little basic morphology and learners can create word families of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs all from one word.

Chunks and Collocations

Words are rarely used in isolation – teach your learners which words are commonly used together. Verbs and nouns together aid fluency. Knowing the function of a word (in action) makes it easier to understand and remember. Use Corpus based dictionaries and sites for practical examples like BNC/BYU and Just-the-Word.

Word Webs

Encourage learners to create lexical sets when learning new vocabulary. Include synonyms and antonyms and anything relevant. Writing words as a ‘web’ can make the words more memorable and connections and relationships between words easier to see than in a standard list. For an excellent example see vocabulary maps.