How “The Learning Pit” Can Help Establish a Culture for Learning

sketch of a "learning" pit

My practices in education suggest the first few days with any new group of learners are critical to establishing a culture of learning and growth. Front-loading and cultivating these expectations are worth the investment, even if I “lose” a day or two of content.

About eight years ago a mentor teacher introduced me to an activity I now call . (​You can read about this activity on ChemEd X​). On Day 1 this counterintuitive-to-teaching-chemistry activity engages my students in all the  identified by NGSS and establishes an invaluable learning norm that we refer to throughout each learning cycle. We always strive to build a better model of understanding with both explanatory and predictive capacities. In reference to our boat metaphor, we’re constantly exploring, learning, and applying our understanding to build a better “boat” or model of the particulate nature and interactions of matter.

But what about the struggle? How do I address the fact that each and every single boat sinks, and therefore “fails”? Last year my instructional coaches at Noblesville High School, Christy Steffen, Dave Ferris, and Tara Darlington introduced me to “The Learning Pit”, authored by James Nottingham, co-founder and director of ​. The Learning Pit is an additional metaphor my students and I use for the processes by which we most effectively learn.

So what is “The Learning Pit”? According to Nottingham, “It’s about this idea of getting students to question, to challenge, to wonder together... to create that sense of ‘cognitive wobble’... of intellectual dilemma so that the students think more​.” Succinctly, he asks learners to engage in the following:

  • Identify a Key Concept of Wondering​ - more than just facts, these concepts encompass explanatory and predictive elements concerning our observations and experiences.

  • Create Cognitive Conflict​ - hold two or more ideas in their mind, all of which they may agree with but are conflicting with each other.

  • Construct Understanding​ - find the “Eureka moment”. Eureka is literally translated “I found it”, not to be confused with “My teacher told me”.

  • Consider and Reflect​ - What did you think before? What made you rethink what you thought you understood? What did your learning look like this time? How does your current understanding compare to what you understood before this learning? What do you still wonder?


I encourage anyone who’s read this far to borrow twelve minutes from your busy day to watch this eloquent animated rendering of “The Learning Pit” and consider its relevance to our collective goal of helping students learn how to learn: The Learning Pit.


James Nottingham's Learning Challenge (​) - accessed 8/27/18. 


In practice, I’ve shared this video with my students the day after we build boats and have a discussion about what “The Learning Pit” might look like for them in our chemistry classroom. Throughout the year, we intentionally and explicitly track our growth through this metaphor. Are we at the precipice of falling, at the bottom, climbing out, or experiencing that “Eureka!” moment? We do this by reflecting, summarizing, and sharing with each other where we believe we are in the process.

My experience in working through this process with students is profound in terms of metacognition and student development of their own learning capacities. If our goal is to help our learners be the best version of themselves, “The Learning Pit” can be a current for those failed boats to flourish in that endeavor.

Join the conversation.

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Comments 5

Erica Posthuma's picture
Erica Posthuma | Mon, 08/27/2018 - 17:36


I love this and am excited to share it with my students. I'm forwarding this video and idea to our faculty in hopes it will springboard some important conversations between our teachers.

Thank you for sharing!

Zena McFadden's picture
Zena McFadden | Tue, 08/28/2018 - 17:48



Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Mon, 08/27/2018 - 19:37

I had a class with a small group of 5th/6th graders today where a learning pit opened up before out feet, but we didn't step fully into it (mainly since it was right at the end of class). It was in relation to the question "What/who is a scientist?" One student felt it was only those who had made a discovery. Another felt it could include the students themselves. After seeing this video and post, I think I need to embrace the messiness and jump into it. I liked the tourist example from the video with its questions to encourage the thought process to go further.

Amiee Modic's picture
Amiee Modic | Mon, 08/27/2018 - 20:54

Ryan, Thanks for sharing this. I remember being very engrossed in this video when we watched it in the Modeling workshop in Houston. Not only is it useful for the atudents, but it would be a great vehicle for discussion on a day for teacher training. It's also a good reminder for those of us starting new jobs, at new schools, with new systems (aka a learning curve). Best wishes, Amiee

Roxie Allen's picture
Roxie Allen | Mon, 08/27/2018 - 21:01

Thanks Ryan for this video share and the idea that I can share with my AP students tomorrow that the Build a Boat that we did last week will serve as a model for how we "do chemistry" this year!