Recognizing and Nurturing Learning’s ‘Sweet Spots’

Golfers and tennis players talk about it, as do chess students and artists. I’m referring to a ‘sweet spot’, or a felt sense of interacting with an object – a ball or component – resulting in an optimal performance-moment, depending on the imagined outcome. In Zen parlance a sweet spot encounter reflects a kind of partnership requiring player and object to optimally fulfill the role for which they have trained or been designed. Players who consistently find a sweet spot in the playing of their game attest to higher overall achievement and satisfaction.

I think the metaphor of a sweet spot applied to learning is also worth considering.

We humans are, after all, innately oriented to learn, lifelong, so we should pay special attention to the times and situations where our learning efforts result in deeply satisfying experiences. Curiously, we don’t have many ways to describe this other than what psychologists have coined as ‘peak experiences’, having ‘flow’ or being ‘in the zone’.

You know your ‘sweet spot’ when you find it. Can you help nurture it in others?

By any name a sweet spot in learning may be recognized as something that can happen to any learner, anytime, in myriad circumstances – pondering a problem, completing a test, designing a piece of art, experiencing a language breakthrough. It may be linked to a ‘one-off’ event like fitting the last piece of a puzzle into place, to habitual training that has been cultivated like a gymnastics routine, and even a relationship. And like a feeling that comes from completing a puzzle – an event that triggers a small pulse of endorphins into our nervous systems – experiencing a sweet spot linked to learning likewise generates a ‘psycho-somatic’ endorphin rush throughout the body.

This is a good thing, and it immediately forges a lasting impression in the learner’s neurological system and is available, not only as a durable memory, but as a building block on which new learning may occur.

So, if experiencing sweet spots in learning is recognized as a good thing, how might educators and parents nurture them to occur more often?

Assuredly, sweet spots reflect circumstances arising uniquely for each person. Accordingly, nurturing this would call on educators and parents to attune themselves to each child, and come to know their learning habits and interests. Intuition would then be a good guide to spot an opportune time to offer help or even withdraw so a learner can move into their ‘zone’ autonomously. While naturally-generated stress would likely precede the arising of a sweet spot, any coercion or external threat would assuredly stifle it.

With practice and awareness, cultivating a sweet spot in learning leads to the formation of habits and results we associate with those we consider historical or contemporary geniuses.

In an era calling out for innovation to meet the needs and challenges facing our society now and future generations, nurturing learning’s sweet spots in ourselves and our children is part of the solution.

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