The Blue learning Zones

The Blue learning Zones

Blue Learning Zones

January 14, 2020 by drs. Anton de Vries

The world is in motion: globalization, climate change, migration, robotization, etc. Complex systems are changing. What if tomorrow you were allowed to completely transform the entire educational system; you are not bound by anything. What would be your benchmark, your principles and underlying values? This led me to the following questions: ‘How can we take a fundamental approach from a positive perspective, where education is the lever for change? What can we learn from the so-called ‘Blue Zones’, places on earth where people live healthier, happier and longer? How can we create a more sustainable world?’ In this article, I would like to look at what significance this could have for education, based on the factors of the ‘Blue Zones’.

In five places in the world people live longer and healthier than anywhere else in the world. These places are called the Blue Zones. On average people who live in one of these places live to be 90 or even 100 years old, in good health and without medication or a disability. These five blue zones are: Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece). The following recurring nine factors are involved:

1 Move naturally: living in an environment that stimulates you to move without thinking;
2 Know your goal: knowing what you want to wake up for in the morning.
3 Minimize stress: taking the time for relaxation on a daily basis;
4 The 80% rule: reducing your calory intake by 20%;
5 Vegetable food: growing food yourself, especially beans are part of the daily diet of most centenarians;
6 Wine: drinking regularly but in moderation, when having meals or when socializing with friends;
7 Like-minded people: belonging to a group that regularly meets up, has a positive influence on your health;
8 Family: putting family and loved ones first;
9 Circle of friends: having a good circle of friends and sufficient social contacts.

Seven principles of Blue Learning Zones

In the following I am going to revise the nine factors of the Blue Zones to seven, and linking a number of factors together. I am also going to try to translate these seven factors into some models and learning principles which I have been applying to teams as a trainer/advisor lately.

1. Know your goal: to grow towards a sustainable society

From the value level, the creation of a sustainable society comes first. A responsible economic growth (care for me), fair social progress (care for me and you) and effective protection of the environment (care for all; from ‘Three levels of sustainability’, Cavagnaro 2011) are balanced out. From the perspective of learning, this means that you not only acquire important knowledge (core objectives/subjects) and skills, but above all to have the attitude and the moral compass to implement essential changes.

The mobilization of the will is visible in the ‘Learning River’ below (Claxton and Carlzon, 2018). Linking the upper two currents with the slower undercurrent means that within the education sector, curiosity, and inquisitive, reflective, creative and collaborative attitude are more appreciated. Strategies that can help with this are applied in daily teaching.

The Blue learning zones

The terms qualification – the role of education in acquiring the knowledge, skills and attitudes, socialization – involves the way in which, through education, children and young people become part of traditions and practices and subjectification – in which the formation of the person is central and the development of his own identity and uniqueness, his autonomy and responsibility and the discovery of his motives and passions, are at the core of education (Biesta, 2015).

The moral compass lies more in questions such as ‘what can I, as a teacher, contribute to the personal development of pupils/students, the team, society? What do I model as a professional and as a human being? Do I encourage the emancipation and responsibility of the other? Do I take care for all?’.

2. Move naturally

The Blue Zones indicate that people find themselves in an environment where natural movement is stimulated. How can we transform our learning environments in such a way that this no longer stems from the ‘car wash idea’ (everyone taking part the same year system with more or less the same programs) but comes inspiring physical learning environments that already being used at various companies and schools. Below is an example of the so-called Vittra schools in Sweden.

The Blue Learning Zones

So if we know from the Blue Zones that ‘naturally exercise’ is good, we will give sports, playtime, dance, drama, excursions, etc. a greater status within the ‘Blue Learning Zones’. Research shows that involvement in sports, but also not non-sport activities such as music or art, is related to greater hippocampal volume in both boys and girls, and is related to reduced depression in boys (Lisa S. Gorham, Terry Jernigan, Jim Hudziak, Deanna M. Barch. Involvement in Sports, Hippocampal Volume, and Depressive Symptoms in Children. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 2019)

3. Minimal stress

Stepping out of your comfort zone is also a form of movement (factor 2). The attitude of wanting to be challenged, wanting to enter the learning mode, being able to deal with uncertainty and showing resilience, are part of the learning principles within the Blue Learning Zones. This means that learning strategies that help to get into the flow, to keep attention, to understand something and to be able to handle your distractions, are elements to reduce stress and frustration and to make them more manageable. Professor Guy Claxton’s well thought-out and well-founded Building Learning Power concept can be helpful. Training different learning capacities (for pupils ‘ learning muscles’) according to good learning habits are key skills.

The Blue Learning Zones

This requires from the teacher, the school, parents, the system in general a different view on how we look at learning in conjunction to a knowledge base, how we teach, test, supervise and (re)design the curriculum.

4. 80% rule

Within The Blue Zones it is indicated not to eat until you’re stuffed, but stop eating at about 80% full. Most of the time one doesn’t eat in the evening. If we were to translate this into learning, then it seems a clear signal not to overload the brain, to take short breaks on time and let what was learned sink in. Ask yourself reflective questions like: ‘What significance does this have for me? What is the essence, what are my steering convictions and do I have something to revise?’ Maybe we could implement ‘islands of thought’ for pupils, teachers and staff as an integral part of our education?

5. Care for me

The Blue Zones factors include elements that have to do with healthy eating and drinking. Consuming more vegetable food instead of meat for instance. Drinking a glass of organic wine is not forbidden, but it is recommended to do so moderately and by all means, to do so in the company of friends or family. Translated to the Blue Learning Zones it’s my opinion, when it comes to eating and drinking, to take good care of yourself, to exercise daily and to get enough sleep. For school environments this also means replacing candy and vending machines with healthier sandwiches and drinks. Care for me is also believing in self-efficacy, which is a person’s confidence in their own ability to successfully influence their environment, for example by completing a certain task or solving a problem. Teachers, parents and trainers at a (sports) club, can be stimulating models for this. It is not only about ‘technical/skills dimensions’, but also about the moral and emotional dimensions in education and parenting.

6. Care for me and you

The social component matters. From The Blue Zones it is clearly indicated that belonging to a group that meets regularly, for instance family, partners and friends, has a positive influence on health. Translating this to the Blue Learning Zones, it means that the social side of learning is an important element. How can we create learning communities an attitude exists that information will be shared, that you are mutually dependent and that this is regarded as valuable? That there is a basic attitude of sincere listening and empathy for each other (even if you do not agree with the other person)?

7. Time teller or clock builder?

Transformation to a sustainable world requires (transformative) leadership. Entering into (temporary) chaos before something new is created requires courage, time, safe environment to make mistakes, the creation of experimentation space and a change strategy that fits in with this. On a personal level, it takes a lot of one’s own ability to learn from experiences and apply them in new situations. But also, being curious, having confidence in yourself and others, being able to see threats as an opportunity. Furthermore, not offering cut and dried solutions, but asking you to look for them and accept the uncertainty. The keyword seems to be to take a lot of time for reflection. It is also wise to start small, but coming from a higher goal. Do we dare to change our learning communities in such a way that they make a substantial contribution to a better and more sustainable world?

I would like to conclude with Jim Collens question and metaphor; do you dare to be a ‘time teller’ or a ‘clock builder’?

Leading as a charismatic visionary-a “genius with a thousand helpers”-is time telling; shaping a culture that can thrive far beyond any single leader is clock building. Searching for a single great idea on which to build success is time telling; building an organization that can generate many great ideas over a long period of time is clock building. Enduring greatness requires clock building’.

Let’s build clocks!

Drs. Anton de Vries, 14 January 14, 2020


1. ‘Het prachtige risico van onderwijs’ , Gert Biesta, 2015

2. ‘Blue zones’, Dan Buettner, 2015

3. ‘Powering u chidren’,Becky Carlzon and Guy Claxton, 2018

4. ‘Built to last’, Jim Collens and Jerry Porras, 2002

5. The Three Levels of Sustainability, Curiel and Cavagnaro, 2011

6. ‘Omwenteling van mensen, organisaties en samenleving, Jan Rotmans, 2019

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