Welcome to a collection of thoughts, questions and interesting links relating to giftedness ..............
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Thursday, September 8, 2011

The value of failing

It is tempting as parents to scaffold so tightly that our children never experience failure, that they never learn how to pick themselves up when things don’t go well and discover that the world doesn’t end, no matter how uncomfortable the might feel. Being able to persist in the face of challenge is a crucial element of grit or perseverance, a really important factor in becoming successful.

Learning what doesn’t work helps build resilience. Not knowing can also help build independence, self reliance and the ability to problem solve. Ultimately this can reinforce the belief that we can control our destiny to a degree rather than being a victim of circumstances. Monitoring too closely can interfere with our children learning these valuable skills. As much as we would like to see them do well, they need to learn how to do that independently, to learn that their actions (or inaction) have a consequence, whether it is forgetting their lunch, not completing homework, or preparing insufficiently for a test. The important thing for parents to do is not to stop them falling, but to provide a safe environment in which they can do so and help them learn from the experience.

It turns out that error-free learning is inefficient. Learning becomes stronger and more long lasting if conditions are arranged so that we make errors. It sounds contradictory but it has been shown that we remember things better and longer if we are given really challenging tests before we learn the material. It appears that an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before we are given or find an answer helps us remember information better than simply studying the information. Trying and failing to retrieve an answer actually helps learning.

Pre-testing, or giving a test before content is taught, then studying or learning just the bits you missed will improve learning. In some ways this makes sense, spending time covering material you already know isn’t likely to move your learning forward. But perhaps more important is becoming comfortable with not knowing. Students who find school easy, who get high marks without effort are missing the chance for deep and long term learning.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The role of frustration in learning

When we learn something new, progress is rarely seen in a smooth and steady line. It happens in bursts. At first progress seems to be slow, then we break through to the next level where we might sit for a while consolidating our skills before we move on again to the next stage.

Schools on the other hand are set up for steady progress. Despite the fact we know that the brain develops in bursts of activity followed by consolidation, and this is what we observe in learning ourselves,  there is pressure to show continual learning.

It is frustrating to reach a certain level of expertise and then feel ‘stuck’ and feel that no matter how hard we work, we cant get past that stage to the next. It doesn’t matter whether it is learning a piece of music, playing a computer game or learning a physical skill like water skiing. But think about how often have you felt frustrated when you couldn’t break through to the next level of something and you left it alone for a while. When you came back to work on it again, it seemed much easier to make the progress that had been alluding you previously. It was as if you had been working on it in the back of your mind while you were doing something else.

It just might be that the frustration actually serves a purpose in learning.  Perhaps frustration is designed to get us to leave something we have been working hard on, so that we can continue the work subconsciously and refresh our energy by changing to a different activity. Perhaps it is the brain’s way of being efficient.

If we jump in when our kids are frustrated and help them out or do it for them, we might just be taking away a valuable moment of learning. Sometimes kids are really annoyed when an adult jumps in to ‘fix’ something for them, perhaps with good reason! We might not be doing them a favour after all when we helped them out.

Perhaps one reason we jump in is to avert the risk of the child feeling like a ‘failure’ for not being able to do something themselves. Certainly with regard to school work, we worry that if a child cannot do something they might feel badly, but perhaps the feeling of ‘failure’ is a result of us telling them (or showing them by jumping in too soon) that we don’t believe they can do it.

The frustration of not being able to do something doesn’t stop a young child from persisting with learning to control their body and become independently mobile.  And persistence is rarely a problem when they are trying to complete self directed tasks, perhaps moving on to the next level of a computer game. Maybe the differences is that no-one is telling them they cant do it and they are following the natural learning process.

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