Learning Models – Piles of Success

This is my first post in a series I’m planning to share on learning models I find useful. This model I call “Piles of Success”. I find it helps me understand the importance of initial experiences and structuring in the risk of failure as a learning process unfolds. I find people I’m working with also find it useful as a way of understanding a component of their own learning processes.

I’ve been meaning to write these up here for a while but to be honest I’m a bit nervous to put them down on this virtual paper for sharing. If you put your head above the parapet folks just might start taking shots!!

It’s funny, anyone I’ve coached will have heard a lot of these before. Sharing this kind of information is much less risky in person than putting it here for anyone to access.

These learning models I use are just ways I find useful to help me understand how I’ve found people learn and to give me a structure both for my learning/skill acquisition and for those that I work with as an educator and a coach.

In sharing them my aim is firstly to help other learners and coaches with some thoughts I’ve found useful but also to get feedback so that I can improve on my understanding. If you have any experience, thoughts, and feedback you’d like to share then I’m super interested. The comments at the bottom are probably the best place to do it.

Ok, let’s get into it……..

My first memory of thinking about this theory, that I call “Piles of Success”, is while watching a group of primary school kids hopping from rock to rock in the stream bed at the bottom of Afon Ddu Gorge. I was their outdoor education instructor for the day and we were out having an adventure.

Afon Ddu – means Black Stream in welsh. Afon is stream, ddu means black. It is pronounced quite like “thee” not “DU”

Afon Ddu gorge is somewhere I spent a lot of time as an outdoor instructor based in the Conwy Valley, Snowdonia and I’d led hundreds and hundreds of kids up the gorge by this point.

For some reason on that day, I was noticing, somehow more aware of how individual kids were dealing with the uneven, wet and slippy environment. Some kids found it super easy and were bouncing confidently from one rock to the next, not thinking, just doing, laughing, talking messing about with their friends. Others lacked that confidence and were struggling. Their movements were very cautious and uncertain, they were very focused on each step but their nervousness and indecisiveness meant they weren’t placing their feet properly and that looked like it was leading to more insecurity. On this morning I found myself wondering ………..

What did the previous experiences these young children had gone through looked like that lead to this difference in competence and confidence?

Standing there watching my group move up the stream a hypothesis formed that has evolved to become something like this:

If young child A’s very very first experience of stepping from one thing to another is positive they will get a feeling of success and want to do it again, probably immediately.

Imagine the scenario, very young child, awkward step in front of them, they want to get to the other side but they haven’t done something like this before, they haven’t done most things before, everything is new so their brain is set up to deal with this, they don’t have any concept of risk. They launch forwards and make the step. No big deal, (unless someone is watching and rewards them with praise of course!) but they have a bit of information that “they can do that“. If again they try and succeed then you can see how the information they have that they can do this thing is reinforced, third time, and it’s locked in.

This next bit is super important – Even if they fell on the fourth attempt it doesn’t matter now because of the maths, it’s still 3 positives vs 1 negative experience. As long as the experiences that build up stay in the positive then there is no big problem with a percentage of failure.

Because child A now has this innate knowledge they can do something they are very very likely to keep doing this thing and that’s the way you get good at something is to practice.

Let’s look at the alternate scenario, Child B.

If they faced the same step wanting to get to the other side but slipped and fell on that first attempt, maybe banging their knee (pain) they are very unlikely to want to try it again. Straight away we are into the opposite feedback loop, in fact, they won’t want to play that game anymore, the activity stops and so does that motor skill learning and confidence building. in just one moment they have ‘learned’ they can’t do something and this will be further reinforced by not doing it.

Two of my coaching takeaways from this hypothesis of mine are :

  • Engineering a positive first set of experiences in anything new is really important, it’s a foundation stone.
  • The rule of 3. If something has been done 3 times someone can undeniably definitely do it, it cant be written off as luck.
  • Once you’ve built up a pile of success it is no problem to risk failure. Piles of success = resilience.

As mentioned in the first example of child A, once you’ve got a few positive experiences under their belt you can risk some failure. As the process moves forwards I visualise all these experiences as different colour shapes in a pile. We’ll go with green for positive outcomes and red for negative outcomes. The aim is to be creating these piles of success then using these to move up the steps of progression.

piles of success

This diagram shows a set of upward steps to represent a learning progression. Against the steps are lots of higgledy-piggledy ‘experiences’ piles up against them. It shows how these experiences build up leading to a skill progression.

Here are some ways I find this model useful.

Firstly and most obviously I guess, I use it to structure first experiences. Let’s take mountain biking. If someone wants to try mountain biking I look at planning those initial 3 experiences to be as positive and successful as possible. If possible I will try to plan the experience around what they think they might like about mountain biking. The riding needs to be easy and fun, the location needs to be accessible and ideally beautiful, the distance needs to be well within their capabilities. Add in social aspects like good people and something like a cafe to start and finish at and you’ve got a winning recipe. The main thing is that after each of those first 3 rides the person wants to do it again. Achieve that and you’ve got a great foundation to build on moving forwards.

Something I’m very conscious of with first experiences is ensuring they finish when it’s all very very positive. It’s all too easy to snatch defeat from the jaws of success by prolonging an initial experience for too long. The best way to finish is with the crowd wanting more, its exactly what you want.

When I’m coaching activities like mountain biking, canoeing or navigation I use ‘Piles of Success’ & ‘the rule of 3’ to help guide the structure and length of practice. When people are trying a new skill I’ve just introduced I want them to practice it successfully at least 3 times straight away.

Example: When teaching students mountain biking one of the early skills circuits I’ll run is to grab an appropriately sized log and place it on one side of a fire trail. I’ll create a circuit where students ride down one side of the track, ride over the log, standing up using their bent elbows and knees as shock absorbers, and then return back along the other side of the track. I’ll stand in the middle just after the log to provide feedback and build coaching points. Because I know the importance of doing each new skill at least 3 times I’ll run the circuit so that ideally each participant has 3 successful attempts.

Structuring initial experiences so that students get 3 turns at things (3 climbs, 3 times belaying, 3 times breaking in / breaking out) makes a big difference to the outcomes and the resilience of the skill set they have learned all the time building their piles of success. I find a key outcome I want for participants in my role as an outdoor educator and coach is help people to know they can do something they can do.

Lastly, I find discussing this learning model “piles of success” with people I’m coaching is a useful tool to help them understand and take responsibility for their own skill acquisition. It’s a nice simple model that can be easily visualised and understood out in the field.

If you are reading this then you’ve ploughed throughthis article it all the way to the end!!!

YEY!! Well done.

My hope is you have found it in some way interesting and maybe useful. If you have any thoughts you would like to share then please leave them in the comments. I’d really appreciate reading them.

I have other titles in my notes I need to write up and this current period of lockdown might be good for that. If the titles below might be of interest to you then consider subsribing to this blog or connect with me on linkedin at linkedin.com/in/ianganderton/ where I’m likey to share them and other content I find interesting

Thanks for reading


I’ve got a few more topics to go in this series. You will be able to find them all via this blogs category link for Learning Models HERE

So far this is the first of 2 I’ve published in the series, you can find the second via this link “M-Grams

Other planned articles include:

  • The Inner Game
  • Differentiation
  • Thumbs up
  • Steps of progression

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