The Learning Pit: a guide for teachers

Paul Main

Why has the Learning Pit become such a popular classroom concept?

What is a learning pit?

Initially created in 2007 by James Nottingham, the learning pit is a component of James Nottingham's learning challenge.

Learning pit indicates the learning journey of a student, addressing a new concept, revealing contradictions or conflicts with the knowledge, confusion, combining new and creative ideas and ultimately reaching the clarity of conceptual understanding mastered. The concept comes with a variety of resources that schools can use to develop enduring understanding.

Learning pit is a spot where a learner will be, once he has several unresolved questions because of thinking deeply about a specific topic. After having his questions answered, the learner will then reach their learning goals. There are clear implications for developing positive habits of mind that children need to succeed in their education. You may also be interested in reading about problem-based learning.

What are the different stages of James Nottingham’s learning challenge?

The learning pit is part of what James Nottingham called a learning challenge. The learning challenge is developed within a classroom community to help students normalise challenges, reflect, show resilience and create a growth mindset. Its main purpose is to develop metacognitive skills in the learners and to encourage them to ask an array of questions and reflect. A learning challenge will advance students' understanding from the surface level to the deeper level. According to James Nottingham, children must not only ask complex questions about the ideas that are presented to them, but they must have the ability to question their thinking as well. This will lead to critical thinking skills in the students. James Nottingham's teaching framework has four stages of Learning Challenge.


Stage 1. Concept: The Learning Challenge starts with a learning objective (or concept). The objective may come from the classroom teachers, conversation, media, classroom resources, observations or national curriculum. At this stage, the learner is presented with an issue or concept that he already has a basic idea or surface-level understanding of.

Stage 2. Conflict (Also addressed as the learning pit!): This is a stage of cognitive conflict, where the learner is put into the learning pit. At this stage, an array of questions about a challenging task is asked from the learner. It is a challenging stage, where children must show deep thinking leading to a deeper understanding. The main aspect of the Learning Challenge is to get learners "into the pit” by establishing cognitive conflict in minds of students. The purposeful creation of a dilemma makes the Learning Challenge a useful model for inquiry and challenge. Regular experience of cognitive conflict helps to create a Growth Mindset. Learning pits are useful places because they indicate that the children have enhanced understanding of the concept, and now have more complex questions about the concept. After finding answers to their questions, learners can come out of the pit and move towards the next stage of learning.

Stage 3. Construct: At this stage, learners begin to construct meaning from the previous learning. Learners will start to make connections between some ideas while considering various options, viewpoints and defining cause and effect. At this stage, students are likely to find more clarity on the concept, alongside some degree of revelation. For this reason, the student must experience a relatively uncomfortable conflict stage, so that they can develop a much deeper understanding of the concept.

Stage 4. Consider: As the students have already understood the concept more deeply, the clarity of concept in stage 4 enables them to reflect on their learning process. This is a deep learning stage where the learner connects a lot of concepts and answers. After considering how they moved from one stage to the other stage, they can use the same strategy to face other learning challenges and apply the new understanding to another context. By doing so, learners will create a deep understanding of the significance of learning pits.

The Learning Pit Model
The Learning Pit Model

How does the integration learning pits fulfil the everyday learning needs of students?

Getting a child into (and out!) of the learning pit allows them to:

  • First, receive the knowledge that is considered necessary;
  • Identify and understand the need for creative thinking;
  • Show deeper learning of a range of key skills and concepts and apply them in a variety of different lessons.

To accelerate the learning process students are taught how to respond to challenging learning.  The ‘learning pit’ created by James Nottingham help children understand the learning process. When students are not able to understand new and difficult concepts, this approach can be used by the teachers to encourage students to be resilient in their learning, and apply deep thinking skills and a wide range of options to find the answer.

Jill Nottingham, along with the Co-Author James Nottingham stated that the learning challenge is all about the idea of getting learners to question, wonder and challenge together. For them, learning experiences must create an ‘intellectual dilemma’ and a ‘cognitive wobble’ so that the learners can learn more.

The Learning Pit Challenges
The Learning Pit Challenges

What are the benefits of using the Learning Pit?

Following are the main benefits of using the Learning Pit in student learning:

  • The Learning Pit is one of the most effective ways to encourage students to come out of their comfort zone.
  • Knowing why, when and how to apply challenge with learning allows students to move from basic academic level to full-blown learning experience;
  • Collaborative thinking in a safe atmosphere of classroom practice help students to improve their emotional and social skills;
  • Learning pits help to develop skills of connection, inference, reasoning and positive behaviour for learning;
  • A challenging classroom culture helps students to learn complex concepts and builds a holistic understanding of the surrounding world;
  • Learning pits provide encouragement during times of conflict;
  • They demonstrate how confusion and frustration are a normal component of the learning process; and
  • The learning pit defines the steps that can be taken to move from basic understanding to deep student thinking.


Working through the frustration stage
Working through the frustration stage

Final thoughts on the Learning Pit

In a society where students are habitual of getting things done quickly, it can be difficult to teach students how to overcome challenges. Today's students have the technology, access to learning books and other resources. Easy access to such educational resources is likely to change the attitude of children and help them to learn anything without any fear of failure. In this situation, it can be very challenging for the teachers to keep students motivated to build complex understanding. It is especially true when students can get frustrated, find something as an impossible task, feel they’ve failed, or have a habit of giving up soon. In those times of distress, the learning challenge helps students to develop a growth mindset and helps them to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.