Challenges, Courage and the Zones that Stretch Capabilities

We all need challenges. Hard work is challenging and people don’t achieve flow if they are bored.
Therefore, it is essential to be challenged, to be placed in what the Russian psychologist Vygotsky
called The Zone of Proximal Development. This zone is where people function and learn best with
some guidance, which is also felt to be necessary.

When pushed towards their limits, it is important to make sure that people are comfortable about
making mistakes. Teachers need to push learners out of their comfort zones, yes, because that is
where flow, where optimal functioning and where most learning happens. It is also where mistakes
are more likely to happen.

The psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar developed the concept of ‘stretch zones’ to describe those times
when we move into learning spaces that involve tolerating a certain amount of fear and,
consequently, the exercise of courage. We learn best when we are challenged, not when we are
totally comfortable. So, we also develop when we must master these challenges, not when we seek
to avoid them.

Outside our stretch zone, there is the panic zone. We don’t learn well there, although we might learn
merely by necessity, and, with a lot of courage, we might survive there for a little while. If learners
find themselves in their panic zone, it is vital that they ask for help. It is the job of adults around
learners to help those learners back into their stretch zones.

A positive aspect of all this is that we build self-esteem when we exercise courage, when we push
ourselves outside our comfort zones and keep going until we succeed.

Failure is an inevitable consequence to the exercise of courage. Failure is an indicator that we are
working in our stretch zones. The problem is not failure, but the habit of giving up and retreating to
our comfort zones. As Tal Ben-Shahar says, we must: ‘learn to fail or fail to learn’.

It is essential that we communicate to learners, especially young ones, that any failure on their part
is normal, expected, and even welcome: it means that they are extending themselves. It is also
crucial that they feel their failure is shared with us. If learners fail, as teachers, it is our problem, not
the learner’s problem, and it is one we can solve together – learners should not be left to feel alone
with failure.

It is crucial to praise effort and perseverance and courage as much as (if not more than) we praise
actual results. Today a learner may get As, but tomorrow, with the same effort, on a harder paper, a
learner may only get Bs. If a learner thinks that having to get As is necessary to earn good opinion,
that same learner may feel anxious and even give up. If learners know that good opinion is earned
by showing effort and courage, then they will feel secure that they can do that just as well
tomorrow.

This all requires effort, courage and persistence. The role of teachers, parents and guides is to
provide encouragement and recognition of these qualities when they see them. That recognition is
actually much more valuable to learners than stickers or rewards – learners want praise, good
opinion, and a smile to let them know that somebody cares about them.

Encouragement, which is closely linked to courage, is key to the teaching and guidance role:
acknowledging learners, helping them to reflect on their own work, on their abilities, and helping
them recognise the effort that they make, and thereby, helping them to be appreciative of
cooperative, helpful actions, just might help the whole world develop in the long-term to be a better
place. So let’s make it happen.

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