Category Archives: mistakes

What are the Implications for Teachers and Parents? How do you get to Carnegie Hall part four


Attention is arguably the most important ingredient in learning.  In order to map a skill, a concept or a new way of doing things, a child must work with it attentively the first few times.  Attention happens when we are engaged in a struggle to do or understand; Emma’s fierce concentration as she climbs on to the baby gym demonstrates her attention.

To retain what the child has learned, she needs to practice it next.  It is not sufficient to understand or do; the newly learnt word, concept or skill must be worked regularly so it goes from the explicit memory into implicit memory.

Children initiate much of their learning. Parents and teachers who are aware of that and ready to support it will also support the child’s enthusiasm for learning.  Children delight in novelty so will often respond to being taught new things if they are ready to learn them.  They will also learn things that their parents and teachers insist on, assuming the new skill is within their abilities and taught carefully.

“…the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development”    

(Vygotsky 1934/1986)

When Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, stated that learning really takes place in advance of development he meant the area where a child can learn if supported by a more knowledgeable peer or teacher.  He called this the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD.  Climbing up is Emma’s achievement; climbing down safely was in Emma’s ZPD.  The support (in this case provided by her parents) is also known as scaffolding. There are lots of academics running around defining it and publishers selling books to hapless teachers about it.  I prefer to think of scaffolding as spotting with appropriate instruction as needed.

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers...

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers anymore (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Do you remember gym class when you were doing tricks on a trampoline, trying to do a handstand or vault over a horse?  There was always someone there to spot you, with a hand ready to put under your back to stop you from falling awkwardly and doing serious damage.  The trampoline required several spotters holding both hands palm outwards in case they had to push the jumper back.

This, to me, is probably the best example of scaffolding; the athlete is not protected from scrapes and bruises but is protected from a broken neck so she can take the risks necessary increase her skill.  She may fail many times, and that’s fine, because if it is a matter of technique, the instructor will come by to correct her.  If it is just a matter of training the muscles, her classmates will call out the occasional word of encouragement as they spot her and await their turn.

This is what a more knowledgeable person can do for a child in her ZPD.  It does require teaching a child to deal with failure.  I see that word on the page and I realise how stomach clenching it is.  Failure.  For most, the connotations are unpleasant: failing a grade, a business failing, a person who is a failure.  We need to put that stigma aside and think of a child learning to walk.  How often does he end up on his well-padded bottom after a few steps?  He has failed to walk, but do we think of it as failure?  No, because we believe that within the year he will be walking and running.  Plumping down to a startled sit is just part of the process.

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933 (Photo credit: sean dreilinger)

If we allow failure, we develop children who persist. They will regard mistakes as part of the learning process.  These children will ask for help, figure out what went wrong and then move forward.  They will be comfortable with struggling on occasion with new ideas.  Eventually they will become that current cliché, but truly important ideal, an independent learner.

If a student is not learning in their ZPD, they are not moving ahead.  They may be moving sideways, collecting more information, but they are not learning new skills, new concepts or new patterns.  They may be reinforcing their learning so it moves into implicit memory. Students need to spend time consolidating new learning and building on it.  Teachers need to be conscious of which kind of learning is going on.

In practical terms, when you teach multiplication or three-digit division to students, you are not done when they grasp the concept and the time allotted for the unit is over.  Your goal is to get them to the point where they can do the work automatically without stopping to think about how to do it.  This requires practice, drills, homework, games or whatever it takes to keep them practicing until the skill is in implicit memory.  Some will argue it is more important for children to understand mathematical theory than memorise arithmetic and they would be right.  They do not say, however, that the children should not be able to do the arithmetic, and that requires practice.

How would this apply to history? Teaching the war of 1759, I would use overheads to show how the French lost the battle of Louisbourg in 1758 and how Wolfe successfully repeated the tactics a year later in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham at Quebec.  Then I would ask the students to hand-draw both battlefields, the surrounding geography, the troop movements and gun emplacements.  Why? The physical act of drawing and labelling practices and reviews the material. I would not allow students to trace diagrams, because tracing would not focus student attention on the locations of fortifications, cliffs, homes and cannon.

As the students work over their diagrams, questions will come up.  The ensuing discussion is another form of reinforcement.  I might show an excerpt from a Hornblower movie (Napoleonic wars – 40 years later but similar issues) to show the importance of shore guns in keeping harbours safe – or isolated, depending on whose guns they were.  I might play music from the era when the students grow weary.  The students might choose to compete in the accuracy and neatness of their diagrams.

Depending on earlier training, drawing and labelling accurate diagrams might be the ZPD for most students. Drawing troop movements and understanding what that would look like in real life or vice versa is very likely to be within their ZPD.  As a combined history and phys ed class, it would be a great opportunity to take students into the schoolyard to deploy their troops and see the translation of plans to real life.

Freehand drawing seems a very old fashioned way of learning and yet it is an excellent way to use visual and kinaesthetic intelligences to learn in a discipline which is far too often taught only through reading, writing and lecturing. (Gardner 1983)

If attention is the most important ingredient in learning what does it say our classrooms and study areas should be like?  Think about what distracts you and then ask yourself if you could work in your classroom or wherever your child does homework.

A quiet hum of activity is acceptable, but unnecessary movement, music, raised voices and interruptions through phone calls and announcements are disruptive.  When I couldn’t persuade our office to leave messages or send emails, I took the classroom phone off the hook when the students needed to pay careful attention.

Should classrooms be papered with bright visuals demanding the attention of the children as our administrators encourage?  It certainly looks charming, but is it conducive to children paying attention well enough to learn?  Instead, should classroom walls be painted in soothing colours only occasionally punctuated with a helpful poster?  Should there be plenty of study carrels or nooks where students can wrestle with ideas?  Should the group work area be strategically placed so the gentle murmur of discussion doesn’t disturb the other scholars?  Should a primary goal be to teach children consideration of each other’s learning environments?  Should we teach our children how to pay attention?

In some homes all the kids do homework at the dining room table.  For some children that works, especially if a parent is available to keep everyone on task.  It doesn’t work for all.  Figure out what works and put that in place. Many students complain homework takes too long.  When I asked questions, I realised many were texting, chatting on line, receiving phone calls on their cells, listening to music and being interrupted by younger siblings and sometimes parents – all while they were ostensibly doing homework.  None of this was conducive to any but the most mindless and useless of homework.  As I don’t assign that kind of homework, I was not surprised they were taking so long to get it done.

What about students with learning disabilities?  We sometimes think that accommodations mean letting them learn less.  Would they do better if we first worked to improve their ability to pay attention?  They could start with one minute and keep adding as they succeeded.  We could also work to improve their areas of weakness. If the brain changes naturally in response to attentive learning followed by practice, what couldn’t we do for our students who learn differently?

To sum up, a student begins to learn when he is paying attention.  The initial learning is mapping in the brain.  That mapping is not sufficient; practice is needed to ensure the mapping remains. It is like walking through a field; it takes a lot of walking over the same line before there is a trail that will last a month, more to last a year and so on.

How to do mapping and reinforcement is another story, but it is a normal part of a teacher’s repertoire. Reconsider the organisation of your classroom and the structure of the day, but the actual techniques are at most teachers’ fingertips.  It may be necessary to stand back while your students wrestle with their understanding of a concept but you will be rewarded with triumphant smiles as they eventually master it. While your administrator talks brain-based education, you will actually walk it.

Bibliography

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind.

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self; how our brains become who we are. London, England, Penguin Group.

Schwartz, J. M., Begley, Sharon (2002). The Mind & the Brain: Neuropasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, HarperCollins

Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge Massachusetts, London  England., MIT Press.

Walsh, S. J. (2010). Recognition Memory: Brain-Behaviour Relations from 0 to 3. Human Behaviour, Learning and the Developing Brain: Typical Development. D. F. Coch, Kurt W.; Dawson, Geraldine.

What is Education?


Education is what happens when you are challenged.

Desmond Morton on CBC radio one

I see the ball! There it is! Look! Look!

Laugh all you like, you Mister too-big-and-scared-to-jump-in the -water-and-get-it-yourself!

Ta Da!!!

How do I climb this thing?  Stop laughing. Becky Mason says you are not really pushing yourself if you never tip your canoe

I don't canoe either.

Struggling to Read with Comprehension


There are two kinds of people who decide to enter the teaching profession: those who were good at the game of school and those who weren’t.  Those who weren’t nurse a hope that one day they might make a difference to someone else who isn’t good at the game.

I was mainly the latter although I was pegged as someone who Could Do Better if only I worked/did my homework/ was motivated/ wasn’t so lazy.  I was very good at reading so as a teacher and even though I knew better, I never really got the concept that a child could read words with some fluency and yet haven’t a clue what they had just read.  Never, that is, until I started studying Chinese in September.

I am a motivated student, prepared to work hard.  Most days I spend between three-quarters of an hour and an hour and a half studying, using every tool that comes to hand in addition to doing the assigned homework.  I wasn’t able to start the course until a couple of weeks into it and it was another four weeks before the textbook and workbook were available.  I used Internet sites and my notes to study for the first couple of quizzes.  My wrists and thumbs hurt from writing characters in pencil on paper and on the pad on my computer.  I remember why written work was such hell for me in school.

My average is probably an A- or B+ in spite of those difficulties and I would be proud of myself except that I rarely understand the professor when she speaks to us in Chinese. I stumble over the simplest replies. I read sentences with the halting lack of expression of a very early reader and worst of all even if I had recognised every character with ease, I still wouldn’t have a clue what I had read.

In short I am that reader I didn’t understand: the one who can read the words without understanding the sentence.  I am beginning to understand how they can get by for so long and even do well in school!

For a start, textbooks and readers today are packed with full colour pictures, diagrams, maps, charts and other supplementary information about the topic at hand.  The non-reader can garner a lot of information from the visual aids on the page.  In fact, students are encouraged to do just that as part of their reading strategies; the illustrations provide a legitimate means of giving readers information about the topic and a chance to anticipate where the text is going.  The non-reader will rely heavily on the information, not just use it a supplement to the reading material.

Secondly, students are often tipped off by the phrasing of a question as to what answer is expected.   “Do you think Goldilocks should have gone into the cottage?” is a fairly clear indication that the questioner thinks not.  It is not easy to create a question to elicit answers that will indicate how well a student understood the story; that is an art in itself.  I have often spent time before class jotting down ideas for effective questions or rephrasing the ones I had.

These readers in difficulty are unlikely to volunteer answers unless they are sure their answer is correct.  While you don’t want to embarrass them, you do want to know how good their comprehension is and you do want to engage them in discussion.  A teacher who intermittently chooses volunteers and those sitting on their hands to answer will prepare all the students for being called on when they aren’t sure.  This will be especially true if the pattern is random so students will not be able to predict who is next. Following up an error with tactful questions to the student or the class as a whole can be the beginning of using mistakes as a learning experience.  Comments more widely directed such as “that’s a different way of looking at it.  How would you support this argument?” can help the class as a whole consider less conventional ideas instead of embarrassing the student who didn’t understand the work.

“Interesting thought, Jenny.  Can you tell us what made you think of that?” will work once the student is confident enough to think on her feet.  This gives her a chance to refer to the text (struggling readers don’t miss everything) or bring in other experiences or texts, strategies encouraged in all readers.

If the struggling reader avoids participating in discussions of stories and other texts, she has many ways of faking it on paper.  Many adults have told me that they just listened to class discussions and used the information as a basis for answering questions.  If the teacher uses multiple choice or fill in the blank type exercises, then the work has just got easier.  Usually a child who is paying attention can figure out which choices or words are the best candidates for right answer.  Then he makes a guess.  If there are, as usual, four choices and the student guesses wildly, he has a 25% chance of getting the answer right.  If he correctly narrows the answer down to three or two choices and then guesses, he improves his odds to 33% or 50%.  If he actually figures out a right answer or two, he may pass.

This all assumes he does not cheat or receive a little help from his friends.  It also assumes that he does not employ bafflegab in writing answers.  This is the fine art of confusing the reader with such convoluted language or grammar and oversized words that it is unclear what the writer intended to say.  A good dose of if-it-doesn’t-make-sense-then-the-answer-is-automatically-wrong usually cures it.  However most teachers do give the student the benefit of the doubt a time or two before lowering the boom.

In other words, the struggling reader can often do a good job of faking it, especially if he is reasonably bright.  When he declines to read in front of the class or stumbles on his words he will allow the world to assume that he is just shy.  He will announce that he hates reading and then no one will know for sure unless they explore in depth.

Why won’t the teacher be concerned?  If the child is generally well behaved, is scraping through in reading and passing in the other parts of Language Arts and the other subjects, that’s good enough.  Many teachers have the attitude that reading is not part of other subjects so don’t support weak students with new vocabulary or more sophisticated grammar in subjects like history or science.  They may believe that they need to accommodate the child in learning the material, not in means of learning the material.  What they forget is that reading and writing are fundamental to academic success.              The language and thought of each subject needs to be learned along with the subject matter itself.

In addition, the teacher will have a handful of students who are working below grade level and others who have been identified as needing support.  The teacher will have her hands full doing the paperwork for those students and planning for them as well as the normal workload for her class.  A brief interview with the parents of the struggling reader and a suggestion that they read with her at home may be all she has time for.  She could suggest educational and psychological testing but she knows that the child will be low on the list and children with more serious needs will regularly be popped in ahead of their student.  In the end the child would be placed in a regular classroom with support, where she is now.

A child whose timed reading comprehension is in the 7th percentile will not get help, in fact, no one will suggest testing if she has a C average (high level 2).  Most teachers will not even suspect that she is anything more than lazy or dislikes reading

So what are the struggling reader and I to do?  I know what I will do.  Classes have finished and I have my final exam on Saturday, December 18 from 7 p. m. to 10:00 p. m.  I am going to start by spending a chunk of my studying time listening to a pod cast teaching oral Chinese and practising saying the sentences I hear.  I will still spend time every day practising writing characters and listening to sounds and writing the characters, pinyin and tones I am hearing.  With luck and hard work, by the 18th I will be able to read a simple sentence of Chinese characters and understand the meaning at the same time.  If it gives me insights into how to help the struggling reader, I will let you know.