During a staff collaboration, our department head showed us a TED talk by Eduardo Briceño that discussed the reason why people’s skills at their profession tended to plateau in skill despite large amounts of time being invested into their improvement. Specifically, he said that the average person has two zones:
- In the Learning Zone, people are relaxed and situations are very low-stakes. The emphasis is on becoming better.
- In the Performance Zone, the emphasis is on execution and evaluation, and the stakes are higher.
Briceño then stated that the problem is that most people almost always place themselves in the Performance Zone, and are seldom in the Learning Zone. This is apparently impressed upon us at a young age: we are taught that school is evaluative through grades, and are often punished or docked for mistakes, enforcing the principle that mistakes are bad. Furthermore, because the Performance Zone is one of judgment, not of improvement, the mistakes made are not used to improve any skills.
The first thing that came to mind when Briceño discussed a low-stakes situation Learning Zone was my time playing soccer. More than any teacher making me spell and write repeatedly, my time playing soccer – especially with my father – taught me the importance of practice.
When I started playing soccer, I was typically awful. However, about two or three years into playing the game, my skill level spiked suddenly. This was not just due to maturity, or finally understanding the sport. My kicks were powerful for my age, and I was able to aim the ball precisely – almost with x, y, and z-axis precision. I was able to trap almost any ball flying toward me at my feet with a technique involving my shin. These skills made me a valuable asset to my team, despite my lack of precise ball control as a dribbler.
As I reflect now, Briceño’s words color my experience with a new significance. His example of the Learning Zone was made clearer by his reference to the orator Demosthenes, who practiced posture by suspending a sword blade above his shoulder, who spoke against the ocean on the beach to perfect his projection, and who put rocks in his mouth to master enunciation. Individual skills were perfected and honed in ways that far surpassed the difficulty of what he was practicing for – but the situations were low stakes. Nobody would know if he failed during these exercises but himself.
Soccer practice ran similarly. No matter how much we begged for a scrimmage (essentially a simulation of an actual game), both my coach and my father would instead focus on drills, which were little tasks that perfected individual skills in preparation for the game.
“There’s no point in a scrimmage if you have no skill.” said my dad to me once in the car. Essentially, using a soccer game to practice for a soccer game was limited in usefulness because it was a performance zone. Drills were specialized in practice: We practiced dribbling. We did sprints and liners to practice changing direction. We did the Give-and-Go. We juggled the ball with our feet.
When I reflect now, I realize that the things I spent the most time practicing with my dad (mostly because we couldn’t really run around) were my kick (shooting the ball with my father as the goaltender – he was better than any elementary kid would be) and my trap (my dad would always expect me to trap the ball – no self-respecting soccer player would do otherwise if a trap was possible.)
Soccer practice was low-stakes but higher in difficulty. If I missed a goal (you know, because my goaltender was a full-grown adult), I just had to try again. Every time I missed a trap, I just had to run and get the ball. There was no punishment. I practiced for way more hours than I ever played in a game. I realize now that my father kept me in the Learning Zone. Every time I tried to shoot a ball past my father, I was Demosthenes yelling at the ocean. The drills that I performed faithfully improved my skills. Accordingly, the drills that I performed less diligently – like running laps, dribbling, and ball-handling – did little to help me.
My skill plateaued eventually – and again, that’s easy to explain. As I got older, I was shorter than a lot of my teammates. When they did better than I did in practice, I was disheartened, instead of focusing on myself. I practiced less with my father, and soon I only heard his feedback from watching my games. Without realizing it, I had transformed my practice time into a Performance Zone.
Many parents make this same mistake with their child’s education. Low grades are punished, average performance ignored, with only high performance receiving acknowledgment. – implicitly teaching that mistakes are bad. If mistakes are bad, then everything is high-stakes, which makes school a Performance Zone, not a Learning Zone.
In addition, the social imperative mirrors this as well. For some reason, teenagers care what their peers think, to the point that their worst nightmare is to be caught in a vulnerable position. The fear of becoming a social pariah as a consequence is about as high as stakes get, with teens tossing and dodging labels like “snitch” and “slut” in their day-to-day lives. If you worry about what other people think, how can you be safe enough to make mistakes?
I’ve talked before about how we need to be uncomfortable. In order to do that and get to sword-suspending and ocean-yelling, we need to identify our Performance Zones and our Learning Zones and treat them as such. This is also why hobbies are a good idea: you can use the skills they give you in their assorted Learning Zones with your Performance Zone. For example, rapping has been a low-stakes way of building confidence when speaking and demanding attention, which is something crucial when teaching teenagers. It also expands my vocabulary and refines my pronunciation. Blogging helps me with my writing skills and with expressing my thoughts in words, which is definitely an imperative for an ELA professional.
The concept of the Learning Zone is the rebuttal we’ve been looking for to the tired claim that you “don’t use what you learn in school anyway.” Yes, you do! Of course, problems aren’t like they were in school. A school is a Learning Zone. School tasks are drills. School is yelling at the ocean. Real life replaces the ocean with real people and raises the stakes – because now the waves can hear you or destroy you, and your words matter.