Comfort vs Learning?

COMFORT...that seems to be a word I hear so often when working with educators. "I'm not comfortable with ...", "I need more time to get comfortable with ...", "Do you think the kids will be comfortable with ..." Well, it turns out that discomfort may just be our canary that helps us indicate that learning of some sort is actually taking place instead of simply enduring and event. Perhaps for that 'life long learning' we espouse, one needs to learn how to establish at least some level of discomfort in all that we do?
Parents and Teachers, please take a moment to read this and reflect on yourself and on the youth in your life. Is the focus always on finding comfort or do we seek discomfort in safe and manageable ways? Of course when we are comfortable we feel positive about a situation, but can you reflect on important learning that has occurred during periods of intense comfort (can intense and comfort even go together?) ? 
I look at the bulleted list in the article and reflect on our "normal" teaching practice and I see a sizable disconnect! What do you see? 
I read ...
If you're not at least a little stressed about the outcome of what you're doing, your brain shuts down learning
and think about the ever-increasing disconnect youth and adults experience in educational settings today. I wonder if the stresses of "real life" make it impossible for any educational stress to even matter enough? Also, is it possible for us, as educators, to latch on to individual's real life stresses as a means of making our content/experiences more valuable to each learner? 
Would love to hear what thoughts, feelings and emotions the article (and links within the article) evoke from the field. Can we think of implications for creating non-formal educational settings that maximize on research like this? What might that look and feel like?


Thanks for sharing this article, Ed. While this study was conducted with chimps, it confirms what I have assumed about human learning. The struggle pays off.

You asked about the implications for teaching. First, why not talk to students about the value of the struggle? Second, I think it's important to plan instruction that is challenging and that engages learners in critical thinking. We need to raise the bar and support learners to reach those expectations. Often, I believe learners are capable of more than we think.

Providing the right level of scaffolding so students can be successful is not necessarily easy for teachers, but it is worth investing our time in. When we embrace this challenge, we are learning, too.

I'm eager to hear what others think!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP


This a fascinating topic. It relates to scaffolding, as Susan mentions, and and the similar concept of  the zone of proximal learning (see The common theme is that learning academically or in other areas, say running, requires pushing against one's boundaries.  As a K-12 teacher and a student I found the best teachers knew their students well enough to know where  the sweet spot lay between too easy and too hard. 

My questions are: How do you find that sweet spot between too easy and too hard and how do you use it to effectively challenge students in the classroom? What should teachers do when an adult student has not developed the skill of being comfortable with discomfort?  How does a teacher develop the skill of being comfortable with discomfort?


How do you find that sweet spot between too easy and too hard and how do you use it to effectively challenge students in the classroom? 

With most physical therapy, they start with extremely simple actions and incrementally bring the intensity up over set intervals. This is done while the trainer is taking data down to observe how stressed you are. The incremental changes come quite fast at first but a level is soon found where a much longer interval is needed before adding any more increments. Usually, the trainer will bump the change up one more time to be just slightly into the challenge area while still staying safe. 

I would suggest we are able to do the same thing in education, but it may be much harder to take in the data to find out how the learner is doing. Many learners strive to try to figure out what a teacher wants to hear when asked a question. Simply asking, "How are you doing with this?" will probably result in something like, "Fine..." Building up the trust with individuals so that they feel comfortable really sharing how something feels often takes time. With that in mind, I don't think we can take students off the streets and throw them into our Educational gym with the expectation that "fine" really depicts how they feel in that moment.

If that trust is not there, a teacher can take the learner at their word and share how they are using that feedback, "OK if that is fine I am going to ramp this up a notch because our goal is to find at what level you start to feel uncomfortable with this..." Just like a doctor asking, "Does this hurt...?" we start with trying to find what topics/content/level is a challenge and what can easily be done. 

What should teachers do when an adult student has not developed the skill of being comfortable with discomfort?

This one is tough I think. The environment we grow up in has a large contribution to the amount of discomfort we have endured, how we endured it and ultimately how we dealt with it. There may be some very negative habits that were formed and sadly in many cases the severity of what has been endured has left trauma that really takes time and skill (often professional) to get manageable. If we don't count the severe cases for now, I think it is safe to say that all of us have endured something in life. Getting people to share their stories of endurance can be so beneficial for the group to experience how we are all strong and special in our ways and have some experiences that may seem incredible. Students choose what to share and especially with students meeting each other for the first time they probably want to skirt around the major endurance feats. Perhaps offering some examples like, "The most embarrassed in public I ever was was when ...", "The most difficult thing I have ever tried to do was to ...", "When I finally finished (insert a project here), it was such a major accomplishment because ...".

After sharing these experiences, it should be much easier to start talking about persistence and what part that played in each story. From there you scaffold into how one knows that too much is too much or conversely when something is getting way too comfortable and we need to push harder? Finally, we emphasize how it is important to take breaks, but the breaks should not be a complete cessation of the activity. Rather we simply step back a notch or two in order to keep at least some tension in there as we relax a bit so we can prepare for another push forward.

This can be equated to an academic experience fairly easily with something simple like "How many numbers can you memorize?" You can offer multi digit numbers at random times and then ask people a few minutes later to repeat them. Of course they can't write the numbers down :P With practice people will start getting 7, 8, 10, even up to 12 or more digits they can remember. Some will falter around 6 or 7 and may not progress much past that. This experience can be paused and related back to the physical model as you go to help people make solid connections and to reflect on how it feels when things are a challenge, but not to the level where it is just too much to deal with. 

How does a teacher develop the skill of being comfortable with discomfort?

What an excellent and difficult question! On the one hand, one might assume that teachers are already very comfortable with discomfort in their work. The economics of the profession, the mandates and expectations from outside and internal sources, the human caring that almost all teachers bring into a group of often struggling individuals with all sorts of challenges, and of course the near constant feeling that there is never enough time to get done what we hope we can get done. In many cases, these combined challenges can actually get disabling and we see burn out so often in our field as a result. 

Another factor I see contributing to this is fear. Many teachers fear being judged in some ways (ironic at times when one looks at the language we use with learners). The fear of not knowing or of "being the expert in the room" but being challenged by an individual can quickly bring even seasoned teachers into defensive mode. I feel that getting over this fear of not knowing or the fear of being judged in some way can go a very long way into making one comfortable with discomfort as an educator. This will take time and repetition for some and some will jump into the deep end and just start trying to swim (some are already quite buoyant today). 

I have tried the following with some teachers with some success. We pick a topic that is way outside the normal scope of what the teacher knows (or is comfortable with) and the teacher and I (safety in numbers) present the challenge to the class that we both are clueless about this topic and need to figure out .....(fill in the goal here). As students start tying to assist us, we are talking out loud about things we find, how we assess whether it is helpful or not and how we pick where to go next. Then we start asking some students to share what they are seeing, discovering, going. Quickly others pick up with, "Yea! I saw that one too, but I went over here afterwards and found a cool picture of it ..." In a very short time, a group of 10 or 20 people can learn a ton about something if they are all feeling like their discoveries can be shared and valued by a group. I ask the teacher to try this activity again, but with something the teacher knows about but pretends to not know. The learners pick up on the behavior again and soon the class has discovered much of what the teacher wanted to share and she can fill in the blanks nicely. Lastly, I throw a monkey wrench in and ask how that "new" knowledge might apply to some real life situation I make up. Very often it is related to some occupation I have no clue about. "I wonder how this information might be useful for a Bullfighter or someone that trains bulls for rodeos?" Sometimes we quickly find out there is not a solid connection and other times we do find something that fits. One student even started emailing some famous Bullfighters to see if we could get a response! 

By this time, the teacher reflects on how uncomfortable that last part was. Often, the last component is more comfortable than the initial discovery task we throw out to the learners. Often I will have teachers share that having someone else there with them in the experience to help decreases the stresses a bunch (#ShouldTeachingHaveMentorships), but I assure them that with practice everything gets a bit easier. 


Not sure if that answers that last question well. It is simply one set of experiences I have had with a few teachers. I have not tried this with hundreds for instance. I am sure there are other ways people can share how one can "develop the skill of being comfortable with discomfort". Please share your ideas, experiences and best guesses ... don't be afraid, no one here is out to judge us :)


With math, there's a pretty consistent tendency to let a little procedural knowledge lead to starting well ahead of the real ZPD.   Asking conceptual questions about the basic stuff -- especially concepts that can be applied to more sophisticated ideas - can be helpful.