Outside the Comfort Zone
Danny Singh, UK and Italy
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
The Comfort Zone
A pizza or a piece of cake?
The fear factor
Learning in your comfort zone
Learning outside your comfort zone
Teaching outside your comfort zone
The comfort zone is the area where we feel comfortable and secure. If we take a certain road, we know what we will find along the way. When we are in our comfort zone, we often do things on autopilot. We can be half asleep, but we still manage to do what we need to.
Drivers who take the same route every day to go to the same place, will usually drive on autopilot. They are physically driving, but their minds are elsewhere. Early morning pedestrians who might not be fully awake, can still find their way, if it is the same habitual route. The half drunken man staggering home after a great night out, has no problem in finding his way home, even if his senses are not fully with him, and in many cases, even if he can’t see!
While all this might sound positive, there are a good number of reasons why always being in your comfort zone may not be good for you. Following your habitual routine every day, ensures that if you are half asleep or on autopilot, you notice little of what is going on around you.
Compare this with when you are on holiday in a foreign place. Your senses are wide awake, as they need to be, if you are to survive. As you walk around, you observe every little detail, the way people are dressed, their movements, the buildings, the traffic, the aromas, the temperature, the wildlife, the ground, the cars, the buses and the trams.
People often say that the best period of the year is when they are on holiday. It might be assumed that this is because they are not working, they can relax, take life easy. However, if this were the case, surely there would be more pensioners walking around with smiles on their faces! The real reason that people remember and appreciate their holidays is that their senses are wide awake and they are in a constant state of learning.
You might be able to make a great pizza, but perhaps you are not too hot at baking a cake. One day, your friend Sarah, who is famous for her delicious cheesecakes, shows you how she makes them. You can decide to carry on making a tasty pizza and leave the cheesecake to Sarah, or you can attempt to make a cheesecake yourself. The first two or three times, it may not turn out so well. In fact, it may be downright disgusting, especially for your poor family or friends who are forced to eat it. However, eventually you have the satisfaction of knowing that your cheesecake is every bit as good as Sarah’s, if not better!
What makes life worth living is not just the satisfaction of reaching your goal, but most of all, the fun you had in trying to do so! That’s what you remember a few years later, as you reflect on that awkward moment, when you looked at the cheesecake and realized that this was not how it was meant to be.
What is your biggest fear? Mine used to be dancing! I dealt with that fear by facing it head on and I now use dance as one of my effective instruments for teaching English. If you are interested in the story of how I managed to deal with this fear, you can read my article, How Bernardo Bertolucci changed my life, which was published by hltmag, Pilgrims official online magazine. It is available to read on my website. Fear is an important reason to be outside the comfort zone. You get used to dealing with fear and the best way to deal with fear is to face it. If whatever you are aiming for or dreaming of doesn’t give you even a small minimum amount of fear, then it’s probably not worth it!
Find your biggest fear and face it head on, outside your comfort zone! You’ll feel much better afterwards. Being in a situation of fear is highly positive for learning, as your senses are alert, so you take in everything. No chance of complacency or a false sense of security when your fear signals are high.
Teachers and indeed students, can have long discussions on why one person learns better than another, or on what the necessary prerequisites are for learning effectively. From my experience, the students who are least successful in learning are those who operate in a 100% comfort zone. They have their lessons in their offices, often doing one-to-one lessons with a teacher. They remain in their tall, upright chair behind the desk, while inviting the teacher to sit opposite them on a shorter seat, thereby immediately emphasizing the superiority of their position. If they at least changed position, they would be slightly outside their comfort zone and this would help with their learning. Any unnecessary phone calls which arrive during the lesson are answered urgently, as if a question of life and death and consequently, the student learns almost nothing.
Those who have lessons at work, but are forced to change rooms are slightly out of their comfort zone for a couple of lessons, as they get used to the new environment and working with colleagues in a group lesson. However, once the course gets going, they too develop their habits, such as always sitting in the same place and working with the same preferred colleague. Consequently, their capacity for learning remains low.
People who do private lessons in a language school or at a teacher’s home are more outside their comfort zone. They have to make a real effort to get to the lesson, overcoming obstacles such as distance, traffic, bad weather, tiredness, stress and laziness. If they are not seriously motivated, it is easy to find an excuse to skip the odd lesson, here and there. In this case, as in the previous one, the student will probably get used to the comforts of the situation after a few lessons.
Going on a weekend course in the countryside, surrounded by mountains is a real example of being outside your comfort zone. You are away from your day-to-day problems, your routine life, with the opportunity to immerse yourself fully in this amazing course, whatever it might be. The hours spent away add up, over the course of a weekend. Meals taken with the other participants and the teacher are all a new experience. Your attention and concentration will be constant. Ideally, you should also be sleeping in the same environment. Those who decide to go home to their families during the middle of an intensive weekend course are really missing out. Apart from having great fun in these situations, your learning capacities are maximised.
Needless to say, a course done abroad, where you are right out of your comfort zone, allows you to pick up far more. In this case, apart from your lessons, your real learning is done as you venture into the town centre, communicating with bus drivers, local people, practicing real English and seeing how you interact with people. Just as when you are on holiday, you notice and observe numerous aspects of your daily life.
In my courses, I generally try to keep students outside their comfort zone as often as possible. It is not always easy however. Even in the courses mentioned above, or in my famous English in the City courses, where I take students to various locations in the centre of the city, so that they can experience real English instead of the irrelevant material contained in the majority of textbooks, it is still possible for students to switch back into comfort mode.
We find a pub that everyone likes. The students want to go there next lesson and probably every lesson. They enjoyed the beer, the food, the service, the friendly staff, the environment, the English atmosphere. Why should I change this? For one simple reason. If we go there every lesson, they feel too comfortable, they know the menu, they know what to expect, hence their senses are dulled and switched off, which is not compatible with learning. Of course, we will return there. Any location which offers good services deserves our custom, however, not every week.
Even that most frightening activity that I ask them to do, interviewing people in the street could become too comfortable, if we do it every week, as the students will again know what to expect. There must be unpredictability. The students need to arrive wondering and possibly exchanging ideas as to where the teacher is planning on taking them. It means their senses are wide awake.
So I try to keep each lesson as different and varied as possible. The weekly courses are still not ideal, as students arrive after a day working or studying, carrying their problems with them and hence can be distracted and lacking in concentration. It is up to the teacher to try and get them to focus on the activity as early as possible.
Trying to keep your students outside their comfort zone in order to give them greater opportunities to learn, doesn’t make the teacher’s job any easier. It would be easy to sit in that pub, sipping a double malt beer, reflecting on the fact that I can be paid for having a beer and watching football on TV out of the corner of my eye.
Taking students to new pastures means you yourself have to face new challenges. The place you take your students to may make no effort to accommodate you. You may be treated so badly that you decide never to return. At the same time, you need to make the lesson beneficial for the students, while dealing with these extra complications. However, all these situations, however negative, are opportunities.
The art gallery that decided to close two hours before schedule with no warning, left me with a group of students to satisfy and two hours of time to fill. That gives you a challenge to deal with, putting you outside your comfort zone and learning how to adapt by using a plan B or C.
The best form of being outside my comfort zone was however, on one of my London weekend courses. We were all travelling together from the main airport in Rome. However, due to a series of circumstances, some of which were my own doing, we managed to miss the plane. I had a screaming woman, an angry man and several other bewildered students to deal with. I could have burst into tears, sent everyone home, given them their money back and found a job in the bank. However, I used this occasion, as we sat there waiting six hours for the next flight, to teach them a structure which they would always remember. When they returned, their friends would ask, so, how was your weekend in London? Their reply would certainly not be, it was OK. It would be, well, you won’t believe what happened, but..
At the end of this intensive course, I got the best feedback ever from any group that I had previously taken to London. I did ask myself, if I should deliberately miss the plane on all other occasions.
My personal opinion, as I have shown, is that I very much believe we all need to be outside our comfort zones, both in teaching, learning and everyday life. The idea will no doubt frighten some people. It frightens me, but that’s why I know it’s the right way. The more we get used to being outside our comfort zone, the easier it becomes and the more beneficial for all of us. If you haven’t tried it yet, try it and let me know.
Please check the How the Motivate your Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Building Positive Group Dynamics course at Pilgrims website.