Most parents, teachers, and schools encourage students to perform as best as they can, but it turns out that a focus on performance can hinder learning, improvement, and, ironically, performance.
Take Cirque du Soleil, a team that knows how to perform well. On stage they exhibit beautiful acrobatic feats, often performed flawlessly. They are a model of excellence. However, what we see is the brief slice of their day in which they focus on the skills they have already mastered and try to minimize mistakes – their Performance Zone. We need to realize that they can perform at such high levels only because behind curtains they spend a lot of time in their Learning Zone, where they engage in activities designed for improvement, fully concentrated on what they haven't mastered yet, and expecting to make mistakes from which they can learn. When first hired, Cirque du Soleil artists do not immediately perform on stage, despite being elite athletes. Instead, they are stationed at the organization's headquarters in Montréal for weeks or months to work in their Learning Zone, guided by two coaches, one artistic and one acrobatic. Once they join a show, artists arrive on site every day at noon to work in their Learning Zone before the performance starts in the evening. Both the shows and the artists are perpetual works-in-progress, but they could not continue to evolve if they were constantly performing.
Similarly, when great sports teams play championship games they are in their Performance Zone, but during their regular practice they are in their Learning Zone. During concerts elite musicians display what they've mastered, but when they practice they focus on what they have yet to learn. In any domain, it is the time spent in the Learning Zone that leads to significant improvement.
In recent workshops I have surveyed educators on whether they think most students regard school as a Learning Zone or a Performance Zone. Consistently over two thirds report that students perceive school as either “mostly a performance zone” or a “strong performance zone.” When we ask students, we see similar results. If students see school as a place to show what they already know and minimize mistakes, rather than as a place to focus on what they don't know, how are they going to substantially learn and improve?
Inadvertently, students learn that school is a Performance Zone from adults. Under pressure to cover content broadly rather than deeply, teachers are often eager to quickly get to the correct answers so that the class can move on to the next topic, rather than also to uncover and examine mistakes, confusions, and diverse perspectives to learn from them. Consequently, students quickly realize that they're expected to speak up only when they know the right answer, which encourages them to focus on what they already know rather than on their questions or confusions they have. They also sense that peers, teachers, and parents will think highly of them only when they do something correctly, leading them to fear and avoid truly challenging themselves to learn new skills. Students also often notice that their homework and in-class work often gets evaluated for correctness with a grade, rather than being used to provide substantive skill-related feedback they can learn from, which conveys the message that school is a place to perform. Finally, they also often notice that most teachers, parents, and other adults spend almost all of their time in the Performance Zone, which they then emulate. If we want children to become lifelong learners, we have to model being learners ourselves.
In the growth mindset workshops and writings I lead with colleagues, we sometimes unintentionally give the impression that people should spend all of their time in the Learning Zone. However, the Performance Zone has a place in our lives, work, and schools. It is what allows us to get things done to the best of our ability. When the stakes are high, such as when we're building a bridge or operating a surgery, we want to be in our Performance Zone so that we can accomplish those tasks as correctly as possible. But being in the Performance Zone all of the time hinders not only our growth, but ironically, over the long term, also our performance. The more time we spend in the Learning Zone, the more we improve.
Whether it is in our schools, homes, or workplaces, we can encourage more time in the Learning Zone by acknowledging the value of each zone and reflecting on when we want to focus on improvement vs. performance. We thereby gain clarity on what we mean by success, how we can best pursue it, and what we need from one another to realize it.
To learn more about how to master the Learning and Performance Zones, watch our TED talk on the topic: How to get better at the things you care about.
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