A New View of the Learning Curve

Quite some time ago, I found myself holding back tears of frustration and embarrassment as I failed to keep up in a Zumba class [Zumba, in case any of you don’t know, is the twenty-first century version of aerobics.]  I wasn’t even trying to master what the rest of class was doing with their arms—I was only trying to match what they were doing with their feet.  I couldn’t do it.  Not even close.

By the time I had a little bit of a handle on what the steps were, the instructor cheerfully called out the name of another move that I didn’t know how to do.  I was turning left when the rest of the class was turning right.  I was grapevining—in my awkward arms-at-my-side fashion—while they were all doing the box step.  I was out-of-sync and out-of-my-league and very, very much, out of my comfort zone.

I have not been back for another class.

And that was not the first time I have given up in a learning environment that felt threatening.

I could blame this failure on my lack of a growth mindset at the time—and indeed I do remember saying something to myself like, “This sucks!  I just can’t do dance classes because I suck!”

But now I have a new understanding of why that learning environment did not work for me and what I could do in the future that would allow me to box-step and grapevine with the best of them.

Now I have a better understanding of the learning curve

Now I have some compassion for myself when I am struggling to learn something, but I also have some powerful new tools that I can use to help myself to persist when learning is slow and painful.


Introducing the Learning Curve

When I first started teaching people about how to get better at reading, I thought of learning to read as a straight line with non-readers at one end and excellent readers at the other.  I would draw the line, point to some place in the middle, and say to students, “You started here, and we are working to move you up the line closer to here.”

Reading Line


Then, I saw an interview with a musician who talked about learning music and how learning worked on a curve. He drew an s-like curve and explained that when you first start learning a new skill, learning is hard and slow.  There is too much to learn at once and you have to really focus your attention.  As you master the skill, the pace picks up and you learn faster.  Practicing becomes more fun and fulfilling since you can see your progress and it actually resembles real music.  Eventually, however, your pace of learning slows down as you approach excellence.  Each new bit of learning is subtle and hard for your brain to figure out.  He said that top level musicians approach excellence, yet never quite arrive.  They are always striving for new learning and ever increasing skill.

[Note:  I didn’t realize at the time how significant this interview would be to my thinking and learning—I didn’t pay attention to the artist or interviewer and have never been able to find it again.  If anyone sees something like this, please forward me a copy.]

This interview changed the way I think about learning to read.  I started talking to students and teachers about learning to read from the perspective of a learning curve rather than a learning line.  I talked about approaching excellence, rather than arriving.

Reading Curve

This shifted how the teachers I was training went about working with their students, and the conversations they engaged in when helping students to understand what it means to develop excellence in reading.  I believe this distinction and way of looking at learning to read has made us more effective at creating powerful learning environments and developing growth mindsets.

The real power of this way of looking at learning, however, came about as I broadened my perspective from a focus on reading to a focus on all learning and a growing understanding of the brain science that underpins learning.   I am beginning to see that the brain needs different kinds of practices for different parts of the learning curve.


The Lowest, Slowest Part of the Learning Curve

When a person is first learning a complex new skill, the learning is slow and laborious.  The brain doesn’t readily release dopamine during this stage of the learning process as it is filled with far more failures than successes.   It is also the stage of learning that is most likely to trigger what some scientists call our “reptilian brain”—the part of our brain that is ever alert to threat—and cause us to experience feelings of something being wrong.

Zaretta L. Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, calls this triggering an “amygdala hijack” due to the brain’s action of releasing cortisol to prepare us for a fight or flight response.

“The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep inside the limbic layer of the brain.  It is the seat of our fear system that is involved in emotional processing.  It is designed to react in less than a second at the very hint of a social or physical threat.  It has the “authority” to bypass the brain’s communication dispatch hub in the thalamus and send distress signals directly to the lizard brain in the form of the stress hormone cortisol.  We call this bypass an amygdala hijack.  When the amygdala sounds its alarm with cortisol, all other cognitive functions such as learning, problem solving, or creative thinking stop.  An amygdala hijack leads to our natural “fight, flight, freeze, or appease” responses.”


The amygdala hijack is why I have never made it past the beginning stages of any class that called for coordinated movement—be it ballet, aerobics, or Zumba.  Without an understanding of the learning curve, I just naturally compared myself to others, and felt like an imbecile.  Everyone else always seemed to “get it” so much faster than I could.  Not liking that feeling, I would high tail it out of there and go back to pursuits where I was more “gifted” and learning was not so hard or embarrassing.  (Ahh!  Don’t I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her a thing or two.)


Tools for Learning When Learning is Hard

So here are some tools for getting better if you (or your students) are at the low end of the learning curve.

Stop comparing yourself to others.  All people learn at different rates and come into any learning environment with different prior experiences.  If you notice yourself getting anxious because someone else is better than you, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that that is perfectly natural.


Build positive social relationships.  Zaretta Hammond points to the polyvagal nerve as one key to calming the amygdala.  Building trust in the learning environment helps our brains stay calm and fell less threatened.

“This nerve is part of our “social engagement system” and is focused on keeping us connected to others…It encourages social bonding through the release of hormones such as oxytocin when we are in the presence of others.  Social activities such as laughing, talking, and even hugging release oxytocin, the bonding hormone.  When we feel safe in the presence of another, our breath comes easily, our heartbeat is regulated, we don’t sweat nervously, our thinking is clear, and we feel open expansive, and in sync.  Oxytocin is the brain’s “stand down” signal to the amygdala.”

Too often in schools we feel pressure to get through the curriculum and can feel that taking time for building social relationships is a luxury we do not have.  However, especially if we are working with students that have not been successful in previous learning situations, taking that time can make a big difference in their ability to engage and learn.


Engage in deliberate practice of small “chunks” of learning.  Deliberate practice, according to psychologist Anders Ericsson, is repeated practice of small chunks (how small depends on your current skill level) with a focus on finding and fixing mistakes.

This is where Zumba failed me.  The instructor moved on way too fast for my personal learning curve.  I needed to practice each individual move over and over until it could become fluid and natural.  Only then could I put the moves together into a functioning routine.


Progress at your own pace.  If your learning environment allows it, do not increase the complexity of what you are working on until you have achieved a level of mastery.

Unfortunately, this is hard to accomplish in group learning situations. (Except in places where they are reinventing the paradigm by developing personalized learning models that allow students to progress at their own pace.)  However, with the advent of technology it is becoming more and more possible.

My new gym has a system where an individual can pull up Zumba routines to practice solo without the pressure of a class.  Now, I have the opportunity to practice the moves as many times as I need to on my own.


So, armed with a new understanding of brain science and the learning curve, I am ready to head back to the gym and get dancing again.


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