Thursday, February 28, 2008

Being a struggling learner

I received a helpful reminder at TSP’s annual holiday party about what it’s like to be a struggling learner. Our “holiday” party really needs a new name, unless the holidays we’re celebrating are Martin Luther King Day and Valentine’s Day. Each year we seem to edge the date closer to President’s Day. There are plenty of holidays to celebrate, but the traditional Christmas and New Year’s holidays are well-behind us by the time we party. Anyway, for the last couple of years, we’ve had dance instructors at the party. Last year the instructors taught salsa; this year they did swing. You get a sense where this struggling learner story is headed?

One of the party organizers came to me during the party and asked me to help get folks participating in the swing instruction. I long ago learned that you can’t ask people to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself. Fortunately, my wife likes to dance. Unfortunately, she married someone who doesn’t have a lot of natural rhythm or coordination. Nonetheless, we took center stage, and I loudly invited others to join us. The student-to-dance teacher ratio at the outset would have been the envy of even the most well-endowed private school. Gradually, though, we gathered a good-sized crew of dancing students. It was fun, but I clearly struggled. At one point I noticed people looking at me and realized that my lips were moving along with my feet -- 1, 2, 3...5, 6, 7. I’d like to think my awkwardness was endearing, but I felt embarrassed. At the end of the night the dance instructor told me, “Well, not quite, but you have something to work on.” Not exactly the kind of robust praise I prefer to hear.

Without the obligation of recruiting participants, I’m sure I would have abandoned the effort after just a few missteps (and I had many). The experience got me thinking about Carol Dweck’s work on motivation and self-efficacy. Dweck’s research has received a lot of attention and press in the past year, and her book Mindset has been well-received (for more about the book and links to relevant articles go to The basic premise is that those who view intelligence or other abilities as fixed -- I’m good at these things but bad at those -- tend to gravitate toward activities they’re already good at. Those who see intelligence as something malleable -- if I work hard, I can get better -- are more willing to try and stick with things that are initially difficult.

I was living the research during the party. Dancing doesn’t come easily to me. (Neither does skiing. I got the award for most perseverance after a week at ski school in Aspen.) I’ve never stuck with dance lessons for more than an evening. The initial failures to succeed have led me to believe that I just can’t dance. I prefer to avoid it so I don’t look foolish. For me to stick with it, I need to believe that eventually, with effort, I can succeed. And the instruction needs to be structured in a way that gives me a sense of progress, that reinforces my belief that I can get better.

While my story is about dancing, students everyday are experiencing similar senses of “I’m not good at this” in math, reading, history, science, music, physical education, and all the other school subjects. Why, they might think, should they even try if they’re just not good at it.

Recent neuroscience research has revealed that our abilities are not fixed at birth. With focused effort and attention, our brains can change. It’s called neuroplasticity, and we should help our students understand it. We also need to adjust our instruction to reward effort and help students see incremental progress. Adaptive technology that challenges students at the edge of their competence, that isn’t too easy or too difficult, can play an important role.

The morning after the party, I shared with my son that I was caught moving my lips with my feet while learning to swing dance. I told him that I’m not much of a dancer…yet. He said that he wasn’t much of a dancer either. I pointed my finger at him and said, “Yet.”

No comments: