A model for deep learning

Our mission at The Learning Code is to help you thrive in your college classes and to support you in completing your college degree. We hope to ignite your passion, stimulate your curiosity, and strengthen your belief in yourself. One of our major goals is to encourage you to become a strategic deep learner so that you can learn anything you want and master any skill. We believe that the more effective you are in exercising your expertise as a deep learner, the more freedom you enjoy. Under the right circumstances, we know that you can leverage your proficiency as a deep learner to earn straight A’s in your college classes, make money via scholarships, develop a value-based vision for your future, grow meaningful relationships that bring happiness into your life, build a career that you love, and change your communities to reflect your most cherished desires for a brighter world. In fact, we believe that the most valuable skill you can develop while earning your college degree is that of strategic deep learning. The best way to do this is to find a master coach in your target area who can guide you to become a strategic deep learner. However, the U.S. college education system makes it nearly impossible for most college students to engage in and sustain deep learning over long periods of time. As we’ve discussed before, the current policies that govern our college systems all but guarantee that most college students will have close-to-zero meaningful, long-term relationships with master coaches who are invested in their success. Our work at The Learning Code is designed to fill this gap and help you develop yourself as a strategic deep learner. In this post, we explore a model for deep learning that you can use to improve your learning skills in any of your college classes.

Let’s jump right into our model for deep learning. The diagram below, titled Find the sweet spot, presents a visual representation for the process of engaging in deep learning.

Figure 1, Find the sweet spot: In order to engage in deep learning, you need to repeatedly push yourself into your sweet spot, which is your space for productive struggle. This diagram is designed to help you visualize how to find your sweet spot.

Let’s dive deeper into the various features of this diagram and explicitly discuss how this model relates to your work learning in college classes. For more information about many of the terms, ideas, and inspiration behind this discussion, please read two books, written by Daniel Coyle, titled The Little Book of Talent and The Talent Code.

The Horizontal and Vertical Axes

The Find your sweet spot diagram shown above is a graph featuring two axes. The horizontal axis represents the amount of time you spend focused on learning towards one particular goal. Your goal might be to a master a specific skill or build new knowledge in a specific domain. For example, skills you might want to learn include riding a bicycle, typing 100 words per minute, running a 6-minute mile, solving complex math problems, getting straight A’s in college classes, building a YouTube Channel, writing a book, thriving on a job interview, etc. Knowledge you might want to develop includes a deep understanding of how to build a computer, how to code in Python, how to apply the math you learn in college to your life, how racism negatively effects your life, the history of African Americans in film, or any topic that you are curious to know more about. Whatever skill or knowledge that you want to build, the horizontal axes tracks the amount of time you spend dedicated towards that effort.

The vertical axis of the Find your sweet spot graph tracks the level of difficulty you perceive while learning. We partition this vertical axis into three zones depending on the types of sensations you feel during your practice. These are the comfort zone (in yellow), the sweet spot (in green), and the survival zone (in red).

The Zones of Learning

The comfort zone of learning involves engagement in tasks that you can complete without much conscious effort. When you are working on activities in your comfort zone, you feel a sense of ease and effortlessness. You are definitely not actively struggling nor are you reaching beyond your current capacity. For any practice within your comfort zone, you can easily succeed at more than 80% of your attempts.

The sweet spot of learning is the zone right beyond the frontiers of your current ability. This is where learning happens most rapidly. When you are working in your sweet spot, you are immersed in an intense struggle to accomplish tasks that are just beyond your current ability. In your sweet spot, you stretch and reach for some goal that feels very nearly unattainable though you get very close with each attempt. You are focused on your task, actively engaged in the struggle, and you make frequent mistakes as you push beyond the limits of your comfort zone. Moreover, you are keenly aware of your errors and you spend focused energy correcting each mistake after each reach. You try, fail, correct, and with each repetition, you grow a little.

Work in the sweet spot does not feel comfortable. This work is difficult and requires you to exert focused effort, over and over again. If you are fully immersed in your sweet spot, you’ll probably be successful in about 50% – 80% of your attempts. Moreover, when you are unsuccessful, you can identify your errors and make a conscious effort to correct and try again. You could say that your work in your sweet spot involves a slight sense of frustration since you continually try, fail, and try again. When you are doing this type of learning, you are in a zone of accelerated learning, productive struggle, or deliberate practice.

Your threshold for deep learning is on the border between your comfort zone and your sweet spot. To push past this boundary takes conscious effort and preparation. In order to surpass this frontier, you need to be ready for and almost want to make mistakes while trying to accomplish a task that you find difficult. This is not a line that most casual performers want to cross since work in the sweet spot is quite demanding. The more often you push past this limit and enter your sweet spot for a particular goal in your learning, the more progress you’ll make towards that goal.

However, you do need to be careful not to push too hard. On the outermost edge of your sweet spot is your upper limit for deep learning. Beyond that upper limit, you enter your survival zone. When working in your survival zone, you are too-far out of your league. You probably feel confused and even a little desperate, like prayer is a better option than focused effort. When you are in survival mode, you do not have enough control to be able to identify your mistakes and you are scrambling with each attempt. You feel out-matched and overwhelmed. Practice in your survival zone feels like a guessing game. Perhaps you are successful sometimes but that is mostly because of luck. When attempting to learn in your survival zone, you are successful in less than 50% of your attempts.

One key habit in becoming a deep learner is to figure out how to put yourself between your threshold for deep learning and your upper limit for authentic growth. The best way to recognize this space is to look for frequent mistakes that you can actively identify and correct as you practice. In other words, if you’re not making frequent mistakes, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. However, once you start to lose the ability to specifically identify your errors and make corrections, you’ve probably pushed yourself too far beyond your current capacity. The trick is to find your sweet spot and work in that space as frequently as you can over long periods of time. To help you learn how to find your sweet spot, we will return to and expand on this model for deep learning in a future post. We’ll end with some challenges for you to work on as you craft your identity as a deep learner.

Community Challenge

  1. Rewrite the definition of the comfort zone of learning in your own words. Remember, this work is designed to help you become a sophisticated learner so that you can judge your work in every college class on your own definition of what learning is (rather than on the arbitrary and harmful grades that your teacher assigns).

  2. Rewrite the definition of the sweet spot of learning in your own words. Put focused energy into developing your ideas of what the sweet spot is, what it feels like to be in your sweet spot, and how you know when you are in your sweet spot. My hope is that you can use this work to spend as much time as is possible in your sweet spot and to start to identify when your teachers implement policies that either force you into your comfort zone or into your survival zone.

  3. Rewrite the definition of the survival zone of learning in your own words. If you can, please identify when your teachers implement policies that are force you into your survival zone. As we continue to deepen your expertise as a learner, we’re going to help you develop strategies you can use to move from your survival zone back into your sweet spot, even when you are doing so in the classroom of unskilled teachers or professors who purposefully create classes to weed out students. The point of this work is to help you identify where you are in the learning process and to develop strategies to counter-act policies so you can maximize the amount of time you spend learning deeply in your sweet spot.

  4. Think about something that you have learned deeply in your past. This could be a sport, a musical instrument, your favorite topic in school, or anything that you’ve spent hundreds of hours working on. What did it feel like to be in your sweet spot? How did you get into that space? Who were the people that helped you enter this space of learning? Why did you want to enter your sweet spot on this activity?

  5. Think about some learning that you are currently doing that you do not find fun. Why do you find yourself disinterested in this learning? What would it take for you to get excited about this learning? Who are some people who could help you want to learn more about whatever topic you’re thinking about? How might you start to build a community to help you get excited and turn your learning into a social activity?

  6. What type of feelings do you have when someone else forces you into your survival zone without your permission? How does that effect your learning? How often do your college professors push you into your survival zone during a typical lecture? How does that make you feel about your learning? Remember: most college professors are content experts in a system that does not prioritize deep learning and does not support the type of work that it takes to engage in great teaching. Individual professors are not the reason why deep learning is so hard. Problematic policies are the issue. In this challenge question, you are writing about how those policies make you feel as you learn.

  7. How would your life in college change if you had individual relationships with master coaches who understood this model for learning and spent time really getting to know you? What would it feel like if you could craft your learning with frequent feedback and guidance about how to stay in your sweet spot for the topics you are learning in your college classes?

11 thoughts on “A model for deep learning

  1. Thank you for this post and your questions – below is a draft of my responses to your 4 Q’s! Please do not respond, you have many more important activities to engage in. See you Wed!

    1) I’ve spent hundreds of hours hitting a golf ball, with the original incentive of being excused from my physical ed. class in highschool by playing a sport. After four years playing on the team I made less than meaningful improvements to my overall game, and felt like I had no agency or control of the outcome, besides brute effort. Fast forward six years after graduating highschool and beginning at Foothill, I researched what it takes to hit a golf ball well on Youtube, then in books. This is where I really began to understand what swing mechanics meant, and enjoyed the game. The two primary reasons I did that research was because 1) a golf professor at Foothill named Tim, really spent time analyzing my swing, and the swing of my peers during golf class. Just like how you are doing for your student’s learning portfolios and STEM projects (I can’t state enough how cool, valuable, inspirational it is to see what you are doing this Q!) 2) I realized if I could learn how to strike the ball better, I could co-teach it to my peers so that they could have more agency & fun in the sport than I did, in a much shorter amount of time!

    2. Going back to review pre-req material for CS is not fun because it feels frustrating and demoralizing that I haven’t learned anything significant in CS despite ‘finishing’ a dozen of those courses (I know you felt a similar moment about your undergrad courses, when you started grad school Jeff) I actively try to form study groups in all my CS classes (in fact this a the primary reason, in addition to Conquering College and meeting you, that I’ve made it this far) , but most CS professors make sure no genuine collaboration can happen, at all. Joining a STEM club, and starting my strategic – not deep – learning portfolio is something I need to do right away. Also doing my best each week to be able to ask technical questions during office hours is something I need to do more consistently to thrive this semester.

    3. I make sure as a peer educator, son, associate, student, and future community college educator, to do my best not to create assignments, lectures, assessments, dialogue, feedback, or *insert expectations* , that results in shallow learning (which leads to destroying the little belief that students have) when in their survival or comfort zone.

    4. I’m fortunate to have a few relationships who understand deep learning and the sweet spot, because they have invested the time they genuinely care about my well-being. Watching the way you conduct your classes ever since 5 years was a key inspiration for me to do what you do, for my own students. It breaks my heart to work with hundreds of students over the years who haven’t found an educator like this. Also, so many of my colleagues and classmates over the past decade tapped out of college because a professor pushed them too high in the survival zone or too low in the comfort zone. This is where I am quite excited by our learning code book, but currently even more excited to have some of your class videos be public, so I may supplement my stories about you with my friends, with a link!


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