James Nottingham – The Learning Challenge and Learning Pit

SAPDC and our partners across the Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia are developing a series of Author/Presenter Deep Dive personal study pages in support of teachers across Alberta and anywhere else who accesses the material. Ultimately it may foster organic conversations with peers, book studies, and planning for online teaching (It’s April 1, 20202 as we post this and we’re all pretty much teaching online) and teaching in our classrooms when our new version of normal arrives.

We will be updating and adding authors over the next several weeks – if you have suggestions for this author’s page or for other authors you’d like to have us “Dive into” please send an e-mail to rick.gilson@sapdc.ca

Primarily recognized for his work and presentation centred around the concept of the Learning Pit and helping students embrace the process of struggling to think through the concepts placed before them James Nottingham is the author of “The Learning Challenge: How to guide your students through the learning pit to achieve deeper understanding”. Available through Chapters and Amazon at $49 (Paperback) and $37.75 (Kindle)

And a co-author of a series of books: (Also available through Chapters and Amazon)

  • Learning Challenge Lessons, Secondary English Language Arts: 20 Lessons to Guide Students Through the Learning Pit
  • Challenging Learning Through Feedback: How to Get the Type, Tone and Quality of Feedback Right Every Time
  • Challenging Mindset: Why a Growth Mindset Makes a Difference in Learning – and What to Do When It Doesn’t 
  • Learning Challenge Lessons, Primary: 20 Lessons to Guide Young Learners Through the Learning Pit
  • Challenging Learning Through Dialogue: Strategies to Engage Your Students and Develop Their Language of Learning

James Nottingham and his team maintain a website at https://www.challenginglearning.com/learning-pit/
James can be followed on Twitter at @JamesNottinghm in addition to the Learning Challenge work James is the founder of the Philosophy for Children website at https://p4c.com/

Quick Dive into James Nottingham’s Learning Challenge – Learning Pit Concept Conversation – James presents a summary with examples and provides some insight into conceptual understanding. As you work through the videos – individually or with a couple of friends jot down some questions, aha moments (Nottingham might call them Eureka moments) or other questions you’d like to explore.

A deeper dive takes us into this 55 minute recording of a full Session with James working through components of “The Learning Challenge”

There are several examples of the Learning Pit poster online, the dry erase poster version runs about $14 dollars and is 24″ by 36″, useful in small group conversations or even classroom settings as you walk through the conversation with a group or full class.

The Learning Challenge book is organized to take you through the entire “Learning Challenge” process. A learning challenge requires a concept, not just facts, but a concept to wrestle through, consider the example in the first video above as James takes the students through a series of questions moving away from perceived facts about “tourist” working toward an understanding of the concept of a “tourist”.

The Chapter Summary for the Learning Challenge Book:

  • Chapter 1 – Introduction – A PDF of this chapter is available here
  • Chapter 2 – The Learning Challenge in Practice –
  • Chapter 3 – The Learning Challenge Culture
  • Chapter 4 – Concepts (I really think this chapter will help clarify any teacher’s understanding of concepts and how they can really enhance the learning and conversations in the class)
  • Chapter 5 – Cognitive Conflict
  • Chapter 6 – Construct Meaning
  • Chapter 7 – Consider Your Learning
  • Chapter 8 – Mindset Matters – James has some very interesting thoughts around mindset and Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset (This link takes you to a deeper dive 50 minute Google Talks presentation rather than the 14 min TED talk by Carol) conversation. Nottingham and Dweck have joined forces on this conversation for a couple of presenting tours recently
  • Chapter 9 – Links and Perspectives (several practical tips in this chapter)
  • Chapter 10 – The Learning Challenge in Action – This PDF provides examples of the process.

Excerpt: A rationale for the Learning Challenge
1. We learn more when we step out of our comfort zone.
2. One way to step out of our comfort zone is to find examples of cognitive conflict. This is when two or more ideas exist side by side and yet are in conflict with each other.
3. Examples of cognitive conflict include “stealing is wrong” but “Robin Hood was a good man,” “equality is a good thing” but “not all people need the same thing” and “we should not lie” but “parents lie to their children about Santa, the tooth fairy and so on.”
4. It can be confusing and sometimes frustrating to explore conflicting ideas, but ultimately that investigation can lead to a better understanding of important concepts such as existence, knowledge, right and wrong, thinking, art, community, science, politics and so on.
5. The Learning Challenge describes the journey we can take to explore these important concepts:
Step 1, identify an interesting concept;
Step 2, discover the contradictions and problems within people’s understanding of that concept;
Step 3, find connections and patterns between those ideas and then piece together a more complete definition;
Step 4, reflect on the learning journey and think how this might be applied to other contexts.
6. Stepping out of your comfort zone is what one of the pioneers of educational psychology, Lev Vygotsky, called the zone of proximal development. In the Learning Challenge, this same zone is referred to as the pit. This term was chosen to evoke the feelings of discomfort and frustration many people feel when they are out of their comfort zone.
7. The pit is far less daunting when we are in it with others. That is why the Learning Challenge is a collaborative exercise. We are going to go into the pit together, and then we are going to help each other climb back out with much better ideas than we could have created by ourselves.
Nottingham, James A.. The Learning Challenge: How to Guide Your Students Through the Learning Pit to Achieve Deeper Understanding (Corwin Teaching Essentials) (p. 175). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Book Study Getting Started- Noting that time is critical and the object of this deep dive is to give you a great chance at a focused study of the work, I’d encourage you to find a few partners in your school or region pick up copies of the book and follow the advice of James Nottingham and read and discuss/ponder the following.

As a minimum, I (James Nottingham) would recommend the following sections:
Chapter 1: introduction to the Learning Challenge (PDF linked above)
Sections 3.1, 3.2 and 3.4: the values and ground rules
Sections 5.1, 5.2 and 5.3: the role and rationale of cognitive conflict
Sections 6.1, 6.4 and 6.5: constructing answers and the eureka moment
Sections 8.2 and 8.3: self-efficacy, collective teacher efficacy and praise
This list gives the main sections to read before having a go at a Learning Challenge.
Nottingham, James A.. The Learning Challenge: How to Guide Your Students Through the Learning Pit to Achieve Deeper Understanding (Corwin Teaching Essentials) (pp. 175-176). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition

Extra Credits – Other Resources

This 2016 Full session presentation includes a conversation around building resilience

Play-based Learning – Podcast with David Sobolewski


In late January I had the opportunity to visit with David Sobolewskiafter he’d spent two days visiting with Early Childhood Education teachers and leaders in our region exploring the advantages and importance of play in learning as well as in developing executive and social skills so critical to helping our pre-school and kindergarten students succeed as they move into the “graded” curriculum and school years.

As I hope to do with all our guests I asked David if there was any books or authors he’s come across recently, on any topic, that he would recommend as part of our focus on lifelong learning.  David suggested that recently he’d found himself thinking about and revisiting the works of Bill Martin Jr. author of a host of children’s books including Brown Bear and Chika Chika Boom Boom.


David Sobolewski has 31 years of classroom teaching experience and another 8 years as a consultant with Teacher Induction and Inclusive Learning at Edmonton Public Schools. Over the last three years, he has been engaged in designing resources, tools and professional learning opportunities for teachers and administrators that support play-based learning.

You can listen to our Podcasts on Google and Apple Podcasts.


SAPDC Podcast Launching Soon

Exciting times as SAPDC prepares to launch, “Hit Pause with SAPDC” our new podcast channel, we’ll update you shortly with information on where you can listen in as we visit with educators from within our own region as well as presenters who visit us in the South to help us all in this important work.


Silent x – REDx Talks and Cowboy Smithx

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 9.44.53 AM

I’ve had the opportunity to hear actor, writer, director, producer, podcaster, and speaker Cowboy Smithx on a couple of occasions, most recently as the concluding speaker at the Southern Alberta Student Leadership Conference co-sponsored by SAPDC and several Southern Alberta School Districts in Lethbridge on November 13, 2018.

Cowboy, his given name which he points out presented more than a few challenges growing up, first came to my attention through his involvement in the film, “Elder in the Making” which is really how he views himself, an elder in the making.  An ideal which perhaps should be sought by everyone when you pause to ponder its many layers of meaning. You can view the movie on YouTube through a grant supported by Telus and Storyhive. It’s set up in episodes, the first one is included here:

Cowboy indicates that he has personally drawn inspiration from TED talks and it has driven him to create a safe environment to share the thoughts and ideas of indigenous people around the world, starting with Canada.  He has also had the opportunity to visit and have REDx Talks in South America.  REDx stands for Resilience, Empowerment, and Discourse, with a silent x as Cowboy explains, in his talk, you might also take a listen to Cowboy’s interview on CBC here, I’m particularly intrigued by his invitation to consider we are the ancestors of the future generations and his question/challenge as to whether we are doing things of which they can be proud.   Consider exploring the other 20+ talks on the REDx Talks Vimeo Channel.  Discourse perhaps best begins in this instance with a bit of listening.


Treat them all the same by…

Carol Ann Thomlinson is a world leader in differentiated instruction.

How to differentiate.pngHer most recent book on the subject, How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms 3rd Edition (2017) starts out with an explanation of what differentiation is and isn’t and proceeds to provide educators with a myriad of examples and thought processes by which they might better meet the needs of the students in their class.  Differentiation is scary stuff, the thought compels the teacher to consider how best to teach and support each student as an individual rather than teaching one lesson, designing one assignment or activity for all 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35…students in the classroom.  Differentiation is not 35, 30, 25, 20 …entirely different lessons, assignments or activities.

Steven Covey, in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) wrote,  “The Golden Rule says to, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” While on the surface that could mean to do for them what you would like to have done for you, I think the more essential meaning is to understand them deeply as individuals, the way you would want to be understood, and then to treat them in terms of that understanding. As one successful parent said about raising children, “Treat them all the same by treating them differently.”  It is this notion of treating each individual the same by treating them all differently that I’d suggest is the foundation of a truly inclusive education system and one that his helped by an excellent understanding of differentiation as outlined by Tomlinson.


The foundation of success is in knowing your students, knowing what makes them tick and tuning what we do, even fine-tuning the work to harmonize with and draw out the best in our students. Tomlinson, in chapter 9 uses the notion of a soundboard or equalizer to suggest that for some students we can slide up a bit here, draw back a bit there to get the perfect pitch, tune that draws out the best work.  Don’t panic, the students and parents are partners in this work. Tomlinson provides excellent examples of strategies that can make it work in classes big and small, diverse or homogenous.


There are soundboard settings that can be one click and adjust a number of sliders, some can be pre-programmed and activated when the moment is right and in a differentiated classroom where the foundation has been set with students and teachers engaged in the conversation and routine development it’s clear that everyone can benefit from the collective attention to diversity in the room.

This makes sense or should make sense.  We are not all the same, we share many characteristics but like snowflakes no two are exactly alike, even identical twins need a variance.   Seems like a perfect place to revisit Todd Rose’s work on the Myth of Average.

Treat them all the same, by treating them differently.  It’s really an extension of the golden rule and the results help close the gap between the best version of each student and where they currently stand on their journey.

Resources in Support of Concept-Based Curriculum

With the k-4  Curriculum release and work underway on 5 – 9 for next year the interest is high to understand some of the key elements of the increased emphasis on concepts as a fundamental base to our planning, instruction, assessment and learning in Alberta.  With this initial post, we hope to provide some suggestions in books, blog posts, and videos that may provide some support as together we work to understand the elements of a concept-based approach.

What’s in Your Library?

Alberta’s curriculum is exactly that, a curriculum designed from k-12 across English, Social Studies, Mathematics, Sciences, Arts Education, Wellness Education and French Language Arts with an Alberta focus including direct connections to the eight Competencies outlined in the 2013 Ministerial order as well as vertically integrated literacy and numeracy objectives.  Alberta has drawn upon the work of noted researchers in the field to support the development of this new curriculum.

In support of our continued learning, some of the books educational leaders and classroom teachers may refer to include works from Lynn Erickson, Lois Lanning, John Hattie, Doug Fisher, Grant Wiggins, Rachel French, Ron Ritchhart, Jay McTighe, Tiffanee Brown, Jennifer T. H. Wathall, Susan Brookhart and Julie Sterns.  Each provides different layers of support for the theoretical and practical application of concept-based instruction and assessment.

Websites and Online Supports

We will add to this list over the next few months an years of the curriculum rollout.  Julie Stern’s work on her website: edtosavetheworld.com includes her blog and a wide range of resources.

Youtube Videos

Julie Stern maintains a youtube channel which has a collection of videos including a webinar that provides an excellent introduction to the foundations of a concept-based approach to teaching, or living if you are committed to the process as Julie is at home and at school.

This video provides a brief intro focused on uncovering knowledge and transferring:

We have particularly enjoyed listening to this webinar as we work toward developing our own understanding of teaching for deeper understanding through a focus on concepts and applying conceptual lenses to our work.


Leading and Learning…2018 Student Leadership Conference

Wellness-PuzzleThe 2018 Southern Alberta Student Leadership conference is focused on the theme of personal leadership development to better support others.  You First – Leading Yourself to Better Lead Others suggests that when we mindfully work at knowing who we are and seek to improve upon our own choices and actions we are in a better position to help lead those with whom we have contact or some responsibility to support.

We can draw upon the lives and actions of others around us and around the world who have demonstrated the leadership attributes we might want to have in our own lives in their actions and efforts.  We’ve chosen 20 people from the past and present all around the world to use as our team names for the conference this year.  Some of them will be familiar to you, others less so and as a result, we are using this blog post as a reference site for our participants to learn a little about these leaders.  We invite you to read about your own team “name” but take a minute to look through all 20 and ponder a bit about the choices, successes, challenges and even failures that have contributed to their development, growth and leadership as you continue to grow and lead yourself…and other

Schedule for the Day:
9:00 – 9:30 – Arrive, package pick-up an ice-breaker
9:30 – Welcome, Blessing and Morning Keynote – Monique Smith
10:30 – 10:45 – Break and move to Breakout #1
10:45 – 11:15 Breakout #1
11:15 – 11:30 Break and move to Breakout #2
11:30 – 12:00 Breakout #2
12:00 – Wellness Cafe and Lunch – back at the Gym – Visit the Wellness booths
1:30 – Closing Keynote – Cowboy Smithx
Action Planning – Debrief – At the Venue or on the bus on the way home.
2:30 – 2:45 – Buses leaving.

Team Leaders 2018


Winston Churchill


(1874 – 1965) Politician, army officer, and writer. Churchill was Prime Minister of Britain from 1940 to 1945, Churchill led Great Britain against Nazi Germany during the World War II. He teamed up with allies and consequently led to the defeat and downfall of Hitler. His tenure as the British Prime Minister was in a time of fear and destruction caused by Hitler and his allies. Churchill was known for his fearlessness, determination, unyielding perseverance and undying devotion to his goal.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Malala Yousafzai


(1997 – ) A Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for women’s rights, especially the right to education.

“Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward. When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”


Nelson Mandela

nelson mandela

(1918 – 2013) Revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist. He was the first South African president elected in fully democratic elections. Mandela was also the main player in the anti-apartheid movements in the country and served a lengthy prison sentence because of the same. This did not stop Mandela and in fact, motivated him to devote his life to uniting his country and he successfully managed to do so after his release from an almost 30-year prison sentence. His main characteristics were his determination, persistence, focus and will.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Rosa Parks

rosa parks

(1913 – 2005) American civil rights activist. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, indirectly led to some of the most significant civil rights legislation of American history. She sought to play down her role in the civil rights struggle but for her peaceful and dignified campaigning, she became one of the most well-respected figures in the civil rights movements.
“Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.”


Chief Crowfoot

chief crowfoot

(1830 – 1890) Chief Crowfoot was a Siksika chief born near Belly River, AB and passed near Blackfoot Crossing, AB. Known more commonly as Crowfoot, Isapo-Muxika was a chief and diplomat who negotiated with the federal government on behalf of the Blackfoot Confederacy. He was a key link between Aboriginal peoples on the western Plains and colonial forces by way of the North-West Mounted Police, and was key negotiator and supporter of Treaty 7.

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”


Oprah Winfrey


(1954 – ) Influential talk show host, author, philanthropist, actress and media personality. Oprah Winfrey has played a key role in modern American life, shaping cultural trends and promoting various liberal causes. Through her talk shows and books, she has focused on many issues facing American women. She has been an important role model for black American women, breaking down many invisible barriers.

“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.”


Mahatma Gandhi


(1869 – 1948) Activist. Gandhi was the leading political figurehead in the fight for Indian self-determination and independence. Gandhi inspired millions through his non-violent protests. Under his leadership, India gained independence, but at the cost of a separated nation, creating instead two countries: India and Pakistan. Gandhi is still revered as the father of the nation

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

Anne Frank

anne frank

(1929 – 1945) Dutch Jewish author. Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most widely read books in the world. It reveals the thoughts of a young, yet surprisingly mature 13-year-old girl, confined to a secret hiding place. Fleeing Nazi persecution of Jews, the family moved to Amsterdam and later went into hiding for two years. During this time, Frank wrote about her experiences and wishes. She was 15 when the family was found and sent to concentration camps, where she died.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”


Terry Fox

terry fox

(1958 – 1981) Athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist. He inspired the nation and the world through his courageous struggle against cancer and his determination to raise funds for cancer research. He ran from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, covering 5,373 km in 143 days, but was forced to halt his “Marathon of Hope” when cancer invaded his lungs. He is the youngest person to be made a Companion of the Order of Canada, he was also named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada and was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

“It took cancer to realize that being self-centered is not the way to live. The answer is to try and help others.”


Saint Teresa of Calcutta

mother t

(1910 – 1997) Albanian nun and charity worker. Devoting her life to the service of the poor and dispossessed Mother Teresa became a global icon for selfless service to others. Through her Missionary of Charities organisation, she personally cared for thousands of sick and dying people in Calcutta. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1979.

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”


Abraham Lincoln

ab lincoln

(1809 – 1865) President. Lincoln is regarded as one of America’s greatest heroes due to his role as saviour of the Union and emancipator of the slaves. He played in key role in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in America. Lincoln’s distinctively human and humane personality and incredible impact on the nation has endowed him with an enduring legacy. Prior to his election as president in 1860, he had successful careers as a lawyer and politician and holds the distinction of being the only U.S. president to receive a patent.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”


Maria Klawe


(1951 – ) President of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe is a Canadian leader in computer science and engineering who graduated from Strathcona High School in Edmonton.  Prior to being President of Harvey Mudd College, Maria was the Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University.  President Klawe is committed to swinging the doors wide open for all underrepresented groups to be engaged in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education.

“Coding is today’s language of creativity. All our children deserve a chance to become creators instead of consumers of computer science.”


Louis David Riel


(1844 – 1885) Canadian politician. Riel founded of the province of Manitoba, and was a political leader of the Métis people on the prairies. He led two rebellions against the government of Canada named Red River and North-West resistances. Riel sought to preserve Métis rights and culture as their homelands in the Northwest came progressively under the Canadian sphere of influence. Over the decades, he has become a folk hero to Francophones, Catholic nationalists, and the native rights movement. Riel has received more scholarly attention than most other figureheads in Canadian history.

“We must cherish our inheritance. We must preserve our nationality for the youth of our future. The story should be written down to pass on.”

Nancy Lublin


(1072 – ) Entrepreneur, business consultant and philanthropist. A social activist Nancy, Lubin is the founder of the Crisis Text Line and the former CEO of DoSomthing.org, a non-profit organization that focuses on motivating young people to do their part and create change in their communities through participating in nationwide campaigns. Through Nancy’s leadership, DoSomething.org has grown into one of the largest charitable websites, and has been significant in creating change in various places Prior to that Nancy founded Dress for Success to support women transition from welfare to the workforce.

“Social change isn’t something you should do just to help pad a resume. Follow your passion.”

Emir Abdelkader


(1808 – 1883) Long ahead of his time in the fight for what we refer to today as Human Rights Emir Abdelkader fought against imperialist forces in Algeria and received worldwide acclaim for his efforts to save the Christian community of Damascus from a massacre in 1860.  The town Elkader in Iowa in the United States is named after Abdelkader.   An avid student his entire life he recited the Qur’an from memory at 14.

“Collect as precious pearls the words of the wise and virtuous.”

Michelle Obama


(1964 – ) Michelle Obama was the First lady of the United States during her husband, Barack Obama’s presidency from 2009 to 2017.  An author, lawyer, and University Administrator Michelle Obama completed degrees at Princeton University and her Law degree at Harvard. Extremely capable and well spoken Mrs. Obama works for women and child’s rights and is an advocate in the war on poverty as well as equitable access to education, health and physical education, and nutrition.

“You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”

Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

(1935 – ) The 14th Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people currently living in exile.  An Author and speaker the Dalai Lama is often quoted and provides significant food for thought in the journey for personal peace, joy, and the pursuit of your best self.

“The goal is not to be better than the other man, but your previous self.”

Bridget Tolley

bridget tolley

Founder and activist. Bridget Tolley is representative of a number of Indigenous leaders who are fighting for social justice and action for the countless number of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Bridget’s own mother’s death remains as an incomplete investigation.  She is the founder of the ‘Sisters In Spirit Vigils’ that happen on Oct. 4th every year and has actively played a role in national days of protest and other vigils to raise awareness and encourage greater action nationally and locally. She is also active in social justice causes related to police violence, First Nations education, housing and child welfare.


Martin Luther King  Jr.


(1929 – 1968) Leader, activist, Perhaps the highest profile civil rights leader in the United States, certainly widely viewed as such from 1954 through to his assassination in 1968. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his non-violent approach to challenging the status quo which was profoundly racist and segregated in much of the United States.  His concluding comments in his most famous speech in front of the Lincoln monument in Washington D.C. have been framed as the “I have a dream” speech, which was not in the prepared text but continues to inspire change for equity and equality to this day.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”


Nadia Murad

nadia murad

(1993 – ) The first citizen of Iraq to receive the Nobel Peace Prize Nadia Murad was kidnapped by ISIS.  She and Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the Peace Prize for their work to “end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”.  Nadia has created a foundation Nadia’s Initiative, an organization dedicated to “helping women and children victimized by genocide, mass atrocities, and human trafficking to heal and rebuild their lives and communities”.  She has spoken at the United Nations about her own ordeal and the plight of 1000’s of women and children in the world today.  A film about Nadia’s experience and work is titled, “On Her Shoulders.”

“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”