Why is learning so scary?

Choosing a new phone for many may be an exciting task, however when I took my Dad to get a new phone recently he said “I don’t want a smart phone, I just want one like the one I have – so I don’t have to learn anything new.” This is not the first time I have heard this phrase, however it is one that scares me. “I don’t want to learn.” Five words that not only send shivers up my spine, they also make me feel that the education system has failed that person.

Now I realise that the education system my Dad grew up in was different to today, however I do not see this as a generational phrase, I hear it from all ages.  Whether people are buying a new phone, changing jobs or buying a new brand of toothpaste, change can be scary.

The older I get, the more comfortable I feel with my choices and decisions and yet I know that true growth means being uncomfortable and working through the hard to get to the easy. See my earlier post Everything is hard before it is easy.

I see this comfort turn to complacency in so many ways, in so many lives. In senior classrooms I often hear students asking “Do I need to write this down?”, “Should I underline this?” or  “What colour should I use?” These questions indicate to me, that these students have not been empowered to be learners and they are still wanting to please the teacher and not be wrong.

Teachers also demonstrate this complacency to learning. It still staggers me how many teachers turn up to a PD session without any note taking materials or device. In fact, when I pointed this out to a group of teachers recently, one told me that he expected to be given the notes. Translation – I want to be a passive learner. The challenge is learning is not a passive event.

So what is learning? Wikipedia says:

Learning is the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesising different types of information.

This is my attempt: Learning is acquiring ‘new’ – something that was not known before. It is about changing your perspective, adding more and combining, to come up with something different or new. (I’m not sure I have encapsulated this fully – please feel free to give this a go and post your definition below)

So why is this learning business so scary? The words failure, uncomfy, and vulnerable also come to mind. To learn you have to risk being wrong, risk not knowing and it is uncomfortable. Maybe even risk looking foolish in front of your peers.

Learning means being able to be comfortable about the unknown and the different. The fear of the unknown is well documented  – here is one of of my favourite examples…

the_black_doorAn Arab chief tells the story of a spy captured and sentenced to death by a general in the Persian army. This general had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between the firing squad and “the big, black door.”

The moment for execution drew near, and guards brought the spy to the Persian general, “What will it be,” asked the general, “the firing squad or ‘the big, black door?’”

The spy hesitated for a long time. Finally he chose the firing squad.

A few minutes later, hearing the shots ring out confirming the spy’s execution, the general turned to his aide and said, ‘They always prefer the known to the unknown. People fear what they don’t know. Yet, we gave him a choice.”

“What lies beyond the big door?” asked the aide.

“Freedom,” replied the general. “I’ve known only a few brave enough to take that door.

Don McCullough, Solana Beach, California, quoted in Leadership, Winter Quarter, 1992, p. 57

I have been pondering these questions.

  • Do great learners develop a familiarity to feeling uncomfy?
  • Do they rise above the fear of failure (or even success – I’m sure a future blog topic) to learn?
  • Do they embrace the unknown and move forward anyway?
  • What sets our successful learners apart?
  • In what ways can teachers set up an environment for best learning?

While researching this blog I came across a blog on MindShift about creating classrooms with inquiry learning. Of the 8 ideas offered, number six rings true for me.


Diana Laufenberg made a point of defining the difference between “blameworthy” and “praiseworthy” failure. Blameworthy failure is when the student just decided not to participate in a project. But praiseworthy failure is quite different: kids take risks and experiments knowing that they might not get it right the first time.

“No one talks about cancer research as blameworthy failure,” she said. “We don’t expect a five-year-old to be able to shoot free-throws immediately. It’s a process, and we value it in other things, but not when it comes to school. Kids are not coming in as perfect little products or machines — they’re human beings in the process of becoming.”

In the engineering industry, for example, there are “failure festivals” and “failure reports” during which engineers discuss the processes they’ve tried that didn’t work. “We need to have kids do that with their own learning,” she said. “Be self-aware enough to do something with that information.”

The bigger part of education is sometimes what our students need to learn and has nothing to do with the content being taught. As we are preparing students to be life long learners, this must include students being fully aware of the learning process and the feelings associated with it. It’s a process… and needs to be made explicit to students so they know it is OK to fail and be wrong. I love the idea of having a failure festival – celebrating the mistakes and knowing it is all part of the process.

10606033_10152591824348503_3941088897114221922_nLearned helplessness often comes from the fact that people have not been able to make their own mistakes, with helicopter parents, older siblings and teachers frequently ‘doing it for them because it is quicker or easier.’ This poster hangs in my kitchen as a reminder for all my family to allow others to learn from their own mistakes and efforts.



Showing students the progressions and steps in their learning is also paramount. I found this great resource; reading and writing progressions in child friendly language – click here to view.  Simply knowing your next steps and the bigger picture of what you are expected to achieve can assist the learning process immensely.

One of my concerns is many students are not being stretched and are not often at the edge of their comfort zone, especially those labeled gifted and talented. Many times life and learning are easy and they rarely, if ever, get the chance to fail and feel uncomfy.

A great structure to help students cope with failure can be found in a previous blog post  about learning personal responsibility.

I would love to see more classrooms having open conversations about learning, failure and responsible risk taking. Talking about what it means to be a continual learner. I recently observed a teacher taking a small group lesson and a student commented, “This is hard.” It is supposed to be – it means you are at your comfy edge and are now stretching, and it might take several goes, some practice, asking questions, and a bit of expert coaching or feedback, however if you persist you will learn and enlarge the comfort zone.

In what ways might you shed light onto the learning process this week, term and year to ensure your students are learning at capacity? So that they know learning does not have to be a scary process. How might you prepare students to be life long learners, willing to take responsible risks, give new ideas a go and understand that failure is an integral part of the learning process?



Tags: , , , ,

Published on Sunday, September 7th, 2014, under Learning

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

6 Responses to “Why is learning so scary?”

  1. Heather says:

    Awesome article Karen! I shall forward it on to my loved ones, thank you. Heather

  2. Tony Burns says:

    Hi Karen – love what you’re saying here.

    When I went to replace my broken old Nokia cellphone, in response to telling the guy in Dick Smith, he asked me “What do you want it to do?”

    My reply – “to make phone calls!”

    Before all our presentation skills courses we discuss the Comfort Zone and the part outside of it we call “The Learning Zone”. Once the challenge is acknowledged, the frustration and pain is much more easily accepted.

    Another phrase we like to use – “you’re here to learn – not to complete.”

    Learning is not just about acquiring new knowledge etc – each learner turns up with a whole series of beliefs about success and failure and how good a learner they are. Those beliefs are just as important in determining how well they absorb what we have for them as the way we present it.

    It’s useful for us facilitators to experience some formal learning from time to time – it can remind us of the frustrations our learners might be experiencing!

  3. Karen Boyes says:

    Hi Tony
    Welcome to my blog and thanks for the comments – yes the acknowledgement of the uncomfy makes it so much easier to deal with. 🙂

  4. Alex Delaforce says:

    Thanks Karen
    When talking about learning for understanding, failure and success are like two ends of the same stick.

    Let’s see how far the analogy goes before it gets too cumbersome.

    The relationship between failure and success can be reflected on by considering the relationship between the two ends of the stick. If the relationship is well-understood and well-crafted the ‘stick’ can become a strong lintel capable of supporting huge weights, or the sleekest javelin which always hits its target. Of course the relationship can be wrong, be ill-considered or poorly made. In this case the stick will become cumbersome and dysfunctional like a heavy block that is to short to do the job, or an over-sized cane that is so long it cannot support is weight, collapses, bends or breaks.

    That’s enough stick talk!!!

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Oh I love it Alex – so we need to be equally OK with success and failure or we become unbalanced. Yes – if we focus on being afraid to fail, then we will avoid anything that we can’t do, and therefore are also lowering the chance of success. Is that it??

  5. […] screw up and then be able to learn from these opportunities and experiences. (See a previous blog Why is learning so scary?) This takes reflection and time. To learn to learn, you must know that is it hard to learn new […]

Leave a Reply

Copyright © 2023 Karen Tui Boyes Speaker Website created by Web Matters in collaboration with School Branding Matters