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Understanding the U-Learning Curve

The U-Learning Curve is helpful as a descriptor of the productive struggle that occurs in the process of learning. Picture the top left of the “U” as the beginning point, or the point of not knowing. Picture the top right of the “U” as the point of knowing and understanding. The trajectory of learning begins at the point of not knowing and slides down the left inside to the bottom of the “U”. The bottom of the “U” is where angst and frustration and, often, shame lives. The bottom of the “U” is the place where learners must summon the courage to survey the tools in their possession that might be helpful and determine the tools currently outside of their possession that are necessary to begin their assent up the right side of the “U” toward knowing. This is the first step in obtaining the necessary “purple bricks” that will build the foot holds that will allow the climb out to begin. At this point in the process, learners often see themselves as helpless. They think they should know how to get out of this hole. There is a sense that climbing out should be easy. Often, they are under the impression that everyone else knows their way out of this hole and that they are the only ones who are stuck there. This thinking leads to angst, frustration, and shame. When students feel this way, they often lash out, or blame, or, if they are feeling ashamed, they may withdraw or hide. Students are very vulnerable at this point and they know it. If we were to fill the bottom of the “U” with water, we could call this point the “lake of shame” (I teach the students in my classes this metaphor and often they will let me know when they are mired in the “lake of shame”). Showing students how to react at his point in the process is the most crucial tool we can offer to help them on their path to becoming lifelong learners. While it might seem to them that they are at peak vulnerability and that the safest course of action is retreat, we need them to realize that they are incorrect on both counts. First, they are not yet at “peak” vulnerability, they actually need to further expose themselves by letting others know that they are struggling, which means they need to make themselves more vulnerable. And second, retreat is not the safest course of action, it is merely the most comfortable action at the moment. To begin the process of building footholds, they need to begin stacking the necessary purple bricks (foundational knowledge) they already possess, and seeking the purple bricks they don’t possess but that are necessary for the climb. As each piece of understanding occurs, a new purple brick, and therefore a new foothold, is obtained. When enough purple bricks are linked together then the student is able to climb up the right side of the “U” and reach the top right, or the point of knowing and understanding.

Students learn that they can obtain purple bricks from many different sources. It does not matter where they get them. However, it does matter how they stack them and they need to know that no one can climb out of the “U” for them. They cannot jump the gap, and they must climb out themselves. The help they can get in the process is in obtaining the purple bricks. The stacking and the climbing must be done by themselves.

Once students obtain purple bricks, they are able to carry them to the next “U”, or as they are called in my classes, the next hole. Because they have more purple bricks, the next hole does not seem quite as deep and the lake of shame is a bit shallower and they, as learners, are a bit wiser for having now experienced the successful completion of the process.


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