Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Don't talk down about baby steps

Having children has taught me so much more about education than most of the formal schooling on the subject.

While there have been many slams and jabs about how Common Core is ruining education, I think that the requirements of having students discuss their problem solving attempts and thought process will cause greater improvements than the mere algorithmic thinking that was previously emphasized. It is almost amusing how parents and teachers will be very quick to judge what looks different that when they were in school, but not take the time to look at the steps needed for implementation and the long term goals. Is seems that when a student, or more often the parent, stumbles and has the first bit of frustration with something new, they want to give up and revert to the former system.

But this is where we need to remember the baby steps. In helping your child walk, talk, potty train, use silverware, say please and thank you, and all of the other things we teach children, we know what the goal is, we understand that there will be stumbles, and we know that it takes time. Somewhere, adults learn that, in certain situations, it is ok to give up and stop working at the first sign of difficulty, because they expect to be able to be successful on the first attempt. I already see some of this learning present in my soon to be six year old and I am fighting, with all of my parenting strength, to not solve the problem for him, but to help him persevere and keep trying.

My son is going through first grade at his school and we are working on math and reading. He has shown an interest and a certain aptitude in both reading and math, but they both came with relative ease. Now that we are progressing into deeper levels of difficulty and comprehension, it has thrown him for a bit of a loop and he has lost some interest and wants to give up at the first sign of trouble. This is where his interest in problem solving games and his younger siblings have come in for help.

My son has show an interest in a Disney puzzle game and will experiment and try new methods to beat the level and earn the coveted three stars. When he gets frustrated with a reading or math issue, I like to help him remember how he kept trying with the game and eventually solved the level. Sometimes, it was on his own, and other times he would ask for help. But that was the key, he asked for help, not the solution.

The other support for this has come from my younger children. As my oldest sees my younger children work through letters, numbers, or even learning to walk/run, he doesn't fully understand why they can't just do whatever they are trying to do already. My wife and I talk to him about how it takes time to learning how to successfully do things and there will be times when we try and fail, but that allows us to learn more.

How does all of this translate into formal education? We need to help students and parents recognize what the end goal is for a lesson, chapter, unit, semester, and course. Teachers, also, need to be explicit about these. There need to be meaningful benchmarks that they pass and if they are having difficulty reaching them, we need to have the safety nets to catch them as they fall. Again, not to solve the problem for them, but to help them generate their own solution. But it is a long process and we must take the baby steps to get to the end goal.

Whether Confucius (The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step) or Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (10,000 hours to become an expert), we must take time and understand we will not get there in one day. With common core, we are in about hour 20 of the 10,000. We need to give it some more time and keep trying. We will stumble and fall, but we need to get back up and keep taking those baby steps.

I know, for me personally, I could do the chemistry when I was in courses in college, but I did not understand the chemistry until I had to teach it to someone else. This is the importance of students describing their steps in problem solving and thought processes. When a student can successfully describe their thinking to someone else, actually verbalize it to make it more concrete, then they have made some true progress.

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