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The Zero-Learning Zone and How to Keep Students Out

Has your class ever fallen into the "Zero-Learning Zone?" If you're like me, you immediately chuckled recalling moments or students that were clearly in the Zone. According to Jim Knight (2018), the Zero-Learning Zone is when we act, intentionally or not, in ways that prevent our own learning. Through the lens of the Schlechty Center's design qualities, I'd like to re-envision Knight's argument as one that's less about how we get in our own way, and more about how can design for success. Knight (2018) suggests five reasons we fail to engage:

  • We don't believe we need to learn;

  • We don't believe the outcome is worthy;

  • The work challenges our identity or sense of self;

  • We don't believe we have the agency and resources to accomplish the task; and

  • We're afraid.

The Design Qualities state that we engage with work when it satisfies an authentic need, such as for the result of the work, or a desire to be a part of some characteristics of it. When we, or our students, don't find a task or concept particularly interesting or necessary, but it is one that must be mastered, we can make it more engaging by influencing the conditions of the work. Do we get to work with others? Do we have control over our work environment such as ability to play music or work in the sunshine? Is the task at least organized in an intuitive way that makes sense to us?

Many world language teachers in the US are accustomed to learners and communities who question the importance of learning another language. Many people find it's easy to move through day to day life without needing to notice the plethora of languages, cultures, and perspectives that exist around us. Open a children's library book or stream a movie and odds are they will feature mostly white, English speaking, able-bodied protagonists. The narratives we have been immersed in obscure those people and experiences outside that norm, so despite the fact that our country was in fact settled first by the Spanish and French, our history classes start the tale of our country with the English. Nationalists claim, "We speak English here," when in reality almost 1 in 5 Americans has a first language other than English, and around 170 Indigenous languages are presently spoken (that of course predate English). We help students understand the importance of language to the history and people of our country by honoring and sharing the voices that tell those stories.

Because many of our students have been raised to believe that English is the only language of importance or value, and that Eurocentric perspectives and practices are superior, entering a "foreign language" class can challenge students' sense of self. Relating to people considered "others" can result in discomfort as students reckon with their own identities and beliefs. We may pledge "liberty and justice for all," but reading stories like Cajas de Carton (Jimenez, 1997) or learning ore about Mendez v. Westminster may leave students questioning narratives of who constitutes "all." For others, the unique opportunities of the world language classroom create opportunities to see themselves represented and their experiences honored and given voice in ways mainstream classrooms often fail to accomplish.

Knight (2018) suggests that hope is a product of the agency and ability to achieve something. When we find our students "hopeless" about a learning task, it's important to step back and assess whether we have equipped students with the knowledge and resources they need. What can we supply that would bridge the gap between where they see themselves and where we teachers want them to arrive? Teachers must stand in the gap to connect students with the knowledge and tools to reach learning goals.

Fear is a central underlying cause of finding oneself in the "Zero-Learning Zone." Fear underlies those challenges to our beliefs and sense of self we discussed earlier. It is the reason we feel hopeless when we know we lack something necessary to reaching our target. In the language of Schlechty's design qualities, we call fear "risk" because it involves a perceived negative consequence to our personal or academic well-being. Students experience risk, or fear, in a world language classroom when they worry about what classmates will think when they speak, or when they don't want to do a listening assessment because they struggle with comprehension. Teachers can minimize risk in two ways. First, we must create a classroom culture where all members respect and encourage each others' progress, and embrace failure as a necessary and valuable opportunity for growth. Taking a chance on learning is a brave act that distinguishes one's character and increases one's knowledge and ability. Secondly, we have to know our individual students well enough, and have built a strong enough relationship with them, to attend to their hesitation (their fear) and support them either emotionally or academically through it.

The Zero-Learning Zone is preventable, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to design classroom learning and relationships in such a way that students engage in the work of learning.

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