How Do You Find Your Edge?

What do these statements have in common?

  • If you lift weights regularly, you will become stronger.
  • If you go to class every day, you will learn.
  • If you meet in a professional learning community, you will be a better teacher.

Last week at the gym, I had an “aha” moment when I met with a personal trainer to learn a weightlifting routine.  Some of the exercises she showed me were familiar, but with her guidance I learned something critically important: what it feels like to work at my edge.

“I think I’ve been using weights that are too easy,” I admitted.

“That’s the biggest mistake people make at the gym,” she told me. “They go through the motions and don’t get the benefit.”

Sound familiar?  I thought immediately of PLCs that meet on schedule to talk about teaching without ever changing it, or a student who does every assignment but doesn’t learn.  It’s all too possible in both student and teacher learning to go through the motions without expanding our brains. To learn, we need more than strategies and routine:  we need to push our edge.

It’s the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotosky, 1978), but with a twist.  I’m not just talking about that precious zone between what a learner can do alone and what a learner can achieve with support, I’m talking about the zone any individual can push into by embracing questions and challenge. It’s self-directed learning–an essential 21st century skill both for students and teachers.

Don’t Give Fish, Teach Fishing

It’s not cost-effective to hire a personal trainer to choose my weights every time I work out.  It’s better I learn what my edge feels like, and how to adjust weights to create that challenge, continuously, on my own. The most powerful coach teaches me to do just that.

The same is true in leading student and teacher learning. Our first job is to help learners find the edge of what they don’t know and transcend it. Our most important job is to help them find and transcend that edge, continuously, on their own.

To push the edge of new learning without a coach by our side, we have to know what it feels like.  With strength training, it’s a physical feeling in the muscles: work that isn’t so intense it stresses the whole body, but is intense enough to make it hard to repeat 12 times.

What Does the Edge of Learning Feel Like?

I’ve pondered this question over the last few weeks, and come to realize that there is a state I experience and actively pursue in my work and life. It’s the edge of not knowing, that uncertain space where opportunity begins. When I’m there, I know it. I experience:

  • questions
  • doubt
  • a humbling awareness that what I’d relied on as a given might not be true

It’s not a comfortable state for risk-avoiders. It’s terrifying for anyone with a fixed mindset—those people who equate doubt or error with lack of intelligence and talent (Dweck, 2008). It’s also the state I’ve come to cherish as a writer, entrepreneur and innovator.  No matter how much I know and feel certain about, I can move into this learning space. I reach it by stepping past the certainty and into the questions.

It’s there, at the edge where possibility exists, where lines cemented by status-quo certainty fade into the background. From the chaos of the unknown, we see a problem with fresh eyes.  Releasing attachment to familiar footing, we innovate solutions in new ways.

I wasn’t building strength at the gym by going through the motions with weights that were too light. The student logging seat time in a classroom doing easy activities isn’t learning. Teachers meeting in a professional learning community may or may not be shifting practice.

What Makes Our Actions Count?

When our minds burn with a degree of uncertainty and doubt (but not so much as to create inhibiting anxiety), we are in the right zone for growth. Help learners seek challenge and embrace it.  Alone and with colleagues:

  • Pursue what matters to you with bold curiosity.
  • Ask questions that don’t have answers.
  • Collaborate in the awkward, but possibility-rich, place of not knowing.
  • Look for data and perspectives that challenge what you “know” to be true.
  • When learners you teach or people you lead struggle, ask: “What can I learn from this challenge? How can I change my approach to ensure they succeed?”


What does the edge of new learning feel like to you?

How do you help others continuously learn?

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset : the new psychology of success. New York, Ballantine Books.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Photo Credit: Photo by Midura Lifestyle (2013) (CC-BY 3.0).

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Cathy Townsley

    January 28, 2014, 7:35 am

    I love this piece and the comparison to weights in the gym.
    I would add to your list of what happens when you are “on the edge.” For me, in addition to what you listed, I also feel an intoxicated hunger to keep going and go deeper.
    What do you think about sharing this with the KAAS teachers, maybe at a potluck to kick off a discussion about stretching their students. Let’s talk about this.

    • Tonya Singer

      January 29, 2014, 8:53 am

      Thank you, Cathy for adding your insights: the intoxicating hunger to keep going and going deeper. That really is WHY we take the risk to begin with, we want something! We are CURIOUS, and/or PASSIONATE to solve a problem.

      You are welcome to share this with KAAS. I recommend a discussion on teacher learning: What does it feel like to be at the edge of new learning? What conditions help you move continuously to the edge of new learning and improved practice? What conditions have the opposite impact and make you want to play it safe with the known? What systems, structures and/or norms can we establish together to support our ongoing growth as a community of learners?

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