Navigating the Learning Landscape

by | Sep 16, 2019

The Learning Landscape is a powerful metaphor for learning. It draws a parallel between the abstract cognitive world of learning and the physical journey of exploring the real world. By doing this, it makes the learning process more tangible, more concrete and, therefore, more accessible to learners.

But this metaphor is not simply a nice story intended to entertain. It is a tool, a logical argument, to help both learners and educators understand learning and the learning process. And in this capacity, it excels.

The Learning Landscape allows us to visualise learning as a journey through the rich landscape of knowledge and understandings. As we venture far and wide in the Learning Landscape, we explore all areas of human knowledge. Climbing towards the highest peaks develops expertise.

Throughout the journey, learners encounter challenges in the form of “pits”. We learn that not all challenges are the same. Downhill and Performance Challenges do not gain the learner any height in the Learning Landscape. Only the Learning Challenge provides a path towards expertise.

Importantly, in order to explore the Learning Landscape and succeed when attempting Learning Challenges, learners must become effective climbers, developing new skills to allow them to explore more complex understandings.

The metaphor is used to illustrate four significant areas of research, each critical to developing successful learners. These are:

  • Antifragile (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
  • Habits of Mind (Art Costa and Bena Kallick)
  • Acquisition of Excellence (Anders Ericsson)
  • Mindset (Carol Dweck).

These are not simply four good ideas. They were not dreamed up by the authors. The authors observed and recognised them as real aspects of the human condition.

This is why the Learning Landscape metaphor is so powerful. Unlike the latest literacy strategy or the exciting new program to teach science (both of which might be practical and useful), these ideas are real. They are embedded in our human condition, observed and described by these authors. Collectively, they describe what it means to develop Learner Agency and become an increasingly efficacious learner.


What’s in it for Learners?

By embedding the above ideas into the metaphor of the Learning Landscape, we make them tangible and accessible for learners. Learning is seen as moving through the Learning Landscape. Expertise is realised by climbing the highest peaks. Along the way, learners encounter challenges of different shapes and sizes in the form of Challenge Pits. The struggle of learning and the skilfulness required are represented by the climb out of the Challenge Pit, facilitated by the tools and strategies learners carry in their backpack. Finally, learners recognise how to become more skilful learners by becoming better “climbers”.

By providing students with this broad metaphor for their learning, it helps them understand that the point of all this learning is not simply to know more but to become better learners. By becoming better learners, they ultimately have more choice in life. They have the capacity to pursue their own goals and face adversity – to roam freely through the Learning Landscape.


What’s in it for Teachers?

Educators will find the Learning Landscape gives them a concrete and practical way of talking about the learning process with learners. It provides you with a metacognitive language all students can relate to, making them more aware of the learning process and helping you achieve greater learning outcomes. You’ll find your classrooms come alight with conversations about learning rather than simply focusing on what’s being learned.

You may find there are aspects of the Learning Landscape that challenge some of your assumptions about learning. If this happens, I encourage you to go further and read more of the work by Taleb, Costa and Kallick, Ericsson and Dweck and understand the learning process more deeply.

Many educators have been raised with very fixed ideas about intelligence. These educators will see some students face barriers in the Learning Landscape, stopping their exploration of parts of the Learning Landscape (see Chapter 6: Mindset).

The metaphor of the Learning Landscape challenges those fixed ideas and puts the onus on what the learner does, not on who they are, for successful learning. It describes how all learners are capable of traversing the Learning Landscape far and wide to become an expert. With this in mind, some educators will be challenged to expect even more of their learners and to do more to prepare them better to reach and exceed these expectations.

Perhaps most importantly for educators, the Learning Landscape helps us understand why some learners are more efficacious than others. By shining a light on the types of behaviours that lead to more effective learning, educators are better able to describe individual learners and provide formative feedback to guide students to become better learners.

Lastly, remember that the Learning Landscape is a metaphor. Like all metaphors, it is useful until it isn’t. It provides a powerful and practical way of talking about the broad learning process and how to become a better learner. But if you push the metaphor too far, it will break. That said, I think you’ll find you can push it a long way before that happens.

We will begin by looking at the broad features of the Learning Landscape as we explore how knowledge and complexity are represented in the Learning Landscape. We’ll then look at how learners move through and explore this landscape, paying particular attention to why some learners are better equipped to climb the highest peaks than others.

The Learning Landscape presents learners with challenges in the form of four different types of Challenge Pits. We explore the importance of “filling your backpack” to equip learners to succeed at these challenges and ultimately climb out the pit. We then explore the impact of mindset on our journey through the Learning Landscape to explain why some learners perceive boundaries and limits to their learning. Finally, we give a new definition to effort and explain why not all effort is equal.


Let’s begin.

Continue your journey across the Learning Landscape:

The Learning Landscape
How to Increase Learner Agency and Become a Lifelong Learner

In The Learning Landscape, James Anderson outlines a powerful metaphor for visualising learning. Mapping the abstract concept of learning onto a physical journey in the real world, the learning process is made tangible and accessible to learners.

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James Anderson James is an in-demand keynote speaker and author passionate about supporting teachers and students to thrive in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world. Read more articles by James Anderson

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