Over the past few weeks, our oldest daughter (who is five) started to ride her bike without training wheels while our youngest daughter (who is one) started walking. It has been a few weeks full of excitement, challenges and lots to celebrate. Looking back on these two events, I could not help but think about how these lessons apply to the classroom and how we support learning.
Encouraging a child to try something new is essential for learning to occur. If we never encouraged children to move beyond where they currently are, their potential and full learning would not be reached. Sometimes this even means pushing him to the edge of his comfort level with the necessary support structures. Using appropriate encouragement allows the child to know they are safe and their efforts are being acknowledged.
Lydia started walking a few weeks ago. When she first started, she would stand and just wonder what she needed to do next. We were quick to praise her efforts and encourage her to take a step, even a small step. When she took that first step, we encouraged another step and then another. Next thing we know, she was stepping all over the place!
Susan Brookhart, in her book, How to give effective feedback to your students, writes:
Feedback can be very powerful if done well. The power of formative feedback lies in its double-barreled approach, addressing both cognitive and motivational factors at the same time. Good feedback gives students information they need so they can understand where they are in their learning and what to do next—the cognitive factor. Once they feel they understand what to do and why, most students develop a feeling that they have control over their own learning—the motivational factor.
Good feedback contains information that a student can use, which means that the student has to be able to hear and understand it. Students can't hear something that's beyond their comprehension; nor can they hear something if they are not listening or are feeling like it would be useless to listen. Because students' feelings of control and self-efficacy are involved, even well-intentioned feedback can be very destructive. ("See? I knew I was stupid!") The research on feedback shows its Jekyll-and-Hyde character. Not all studies about feedback show positive effects. The nature of the feedback and the context in which it is given matter a great deal.
When Maggie was learning to ride her bike without training wheels, one of her biggest challenges was riding downhill. Inevitably, she would start off rather slow and then get faster and faster. I explained to her how to use her brakes, I demonstrated on the bike how to use the brakes, and I told her when to use the brakes as she was riding. The feedback that I gave her was immediate and specific so she knew when and how to use the brakes to achieve her goal – slowing down.
Learning does not occur all at once. No two children learn the same way nor do they learn at the same time. The learning should be the constant and the time is the variable. We need to understand that learning does not occur in the same manner for all students and sometimes we need to scaffold their learning and break it into smaller chunks to help them achieve their overall goal.
When Maggie was learning to get started on her bike all by herself, the support we gave her varied as she learned new skills. Initially, I held on to the back of her seat. Then I showed her how to push off with her feet to get her bike going. Then I showed her how to push off with one foot while the other was on the pedal. Then she was able to push off and start pedaling.
Susan Brookhart, in her book, How to give effective feedback to your students, also writes:
A strong learning environment in which students see constructive criticism as a good thing and understand that learning cannot occur without practice. If part of the classroom culture is to always "get things right," then if something needs improvement, it's "wrong." If, instead, the classroom culture values finding and using suggestions for improvement, students will be able to use feedback, plan and execute steps for improvement.
One of my favorite acronyms for FAIL is First Attempt in Learning. I can’t tell you how many times Lydia would take a step and then fall over, but she would get back up and try again. And I can’t tell you how many times Maggie would attempt to get her bike going all by herself and not be successful. However, when she was able to do so, the expression on her face and the sense of accomplishment was unmatched by anything I have seen before.
Celebrating efforts and success is an important part of what we do each and every day. Children need to be able to find success in and out of the classroom and we need to take the time to celebrate these successes along the way. Not all celebrations need to be a grand event; as long as the celebration is authentic and timely, it can have long lasting effects!
When both Maggie and Lydia were attempting to master their goals, we provided little celebrations along the way. High Fives, verbal praise, calling grandparents… all these little things helped them continue to work toward meeting their goals.