However, I was recently at a gathering of Educators, and someone brought up the idea that our students should always be slightly uncomfortable in class so as to learn more effectively. This completely challenged my idea of how I aim for my classroom environment/vibe to be. My initial response was to think: No! Students need to feel comfortable in order to ask those questions they think other people may not value, and to believe that the other people in the room will support their learning. How can you really believe that as a student if you are feeling on edge and have different (stress?) brain chemistry going on? Was the person suggesting that the uncomfortableness should come from the environment of the classroom, or more from the content/thinking/context?
And then I took a step back and really tried to challenge my own thinking (it's quite a confronting thing to do!) Perhaps my reaction was solely based on my own personal experiences of the difference between choosing to go outside my comfort zone when I felt it was required by the situation or by some inner drive, compared to when I was forced outside my comfort zone by other people's actions. Also by what my different reactions were based on how far beyond my comfort zone I went.
I enjoy and thrive on my experiences when I have chosen to let go of those things that are familiar and safe, but I can feel resentful, annoyed and on edge when other people make that decision for me. But maybe that's not the case for everyone? Perhaps I even misinterpreted what was said, or what the intent of the statement was?
My roundabout thinking finally brought me back to the realisation that I personally cannot learn unless I feel comfortable. I can certainly grow as a person, but I struggle to take in facts, consolidate understanding and draw connections between ideas unless I'm relaxed and comfortable. Because I want my classrooms to be as much about me learning from my students, as them from me, I therefore require my classrooms to have a comfortable vibe where students feel safe and supported and their brains can engage without being in 'fight or flight' mode.*
However, I realised that feeling comfortable on a personal level is completely separate to the kind of environment that my brain best functions in.
My research suggested that learning best takes places in a zone somewhere between comfort and panic, called the learning/stretch zone.
So maybe this is what I'm aiming for (and hope that I do most of the time!) Provide a learning atmosphere that is mentally stimulating, mentally challenging, mentally outside of their thinking comfort zones, but still within an environment in which they feel unthreatened on a personal level. This has also made me reflect that I do nudge students beyond their comfort zones in terms of their learning experiences, but I always try and maintain the good relationship that we have so they feel anchored. I instinctively push my thinking beyond what I read on the page, but not all students can do this yet. If I left them to wallow in their true comfort zones, they would spend the lesson texting and gossiping (well some of them would anyway!)
So, I am grateful for views that seem to oppose my own, because firstly, life would be so boring if we all thought the same way; and secondly, when I use these opposing views to challenge my own thinking (rather than just dismissing them out of hand), it opens up doorways into learning about new aspects of my own practice. In this case, although I initially disagreed with what was said, that "students should always feel a little uncomfortable", I really just needed to clarify and expand my understanding.
(I realise too that sometimes I'm late to the party of certain aspects of educational research, but I've decided that coming to a way of thinking prior to stumbling across the research that supports the view is a good thing......as opposed to looking at it as me re-inventing the wheel! Ever the optimist.)
*Fight or flight......
From a biology perspective, when animals are in threatening situations, the adrenaline starts pumping, heart rate increases and a lot of other physiological factors come into play which result in a stress to the body. Life is stressful enough for teenagers! They don't need a stressful classroom environment on top of things... so the push into the learning zone needs to be a gentle one, where they feel supported, but their thinking is stretched and challenged.