What’s going to work? TEEEAMWORK!
Can we fix it? Yes we can!
Three special steps are all that you need!
What do you need when you don’t know where to go?
If your kids are similar age to mine and their favourite channel was also Nick Jr these exhortations will be so horribly familiar you may not be grateful for the reminder of exhaustion befuddled times when they became all too familiar. Heaven knows just how many times my kids, slouched, hypnotised and inactive on the sofa have been exhorted to ‘use their imagination.’ Much like adults who vacantly watch Saturday Kitchen, getting up only to make themselves some toast for lunch, our children are generally entertained but unmoved by the character/behavioural education so carefully packaged for them. How do I know it all hasn’t worked? Simply because, given the heavy indoctrination sessions the average three year old sits through everyday, if the lessons worked our reception classes would be full of cooperative, caring, team-working, problem solving giants of imagination. In actual fact, I’ve never heard a KS1 teacher recommend the route to attaining these attributes and dispositions is through more TV. Odd that.
It is odd how back to front it all is. The sort of teachers who believe hands on experience is essential to learning will only TELL young kids what is desirable behaviour. They do then, unlike with telly lessons, give possible opportunities for those behaviours to be practised and may try and prompt those behaviours but they then believe kids behaviour will alter if the child is ‘ready’ or able. These teachers tend to be less keen on REQUIRING that behaviour to ensure experience of it.
I agree that whatever of our general behaviour is mouldable, is shaped by experience. However, generally speaking, those experiences were NOT optional. We often learn from the ‘school of hard knocks’ but in our society we shirk from exposing our children to anything that could be considered distressing fearing it will damage the child or harm motivation. Engelmann sees things differently. He describes how when a child learns to walk, the ground is entirely unforgiving. Again and again the child falls but the undistorted feedback the ground provides means learning is fast. We shirk from allowing our children such experiences in their education. We seem to hope that we can cheat. If we just TELL our children the desirability of resilience, if we make it their decision, we don’t have to upset them. We fear that any non-voluntary behaviour demotivates.
For a long time (it feels like forever) my six year old has been learning number bonds. The odd time I have told him WHY he does long lists of calculations. I’ve even pointed out to him that his progress has been due to hard work. However, I have never focused on teaching him motivation and then allowed his progress to be dependent on his own motivation. Why not? Because he is only six and I don’t want my six year old to be hassled with the responsibility for or expect him to be reliably capable of, self motivated hard work. I certainly don’t want his progress to be dependent on this.
Recently my son has been doing the ‘Big Brainz’ games on the computer to build fluency in the four operations. He has got a bit distressed and very frustrated when he has failed a level because he does not remember the answer to questions such as 13-4 or 3×7. Contrary to the impression I must give, I can be a soft hearted soul. I’ve not liked to see his upset, felt that helping him with answers won’t hurt too much. Actually my kindness just means he struggles with the next level as the learning on the last was not secure. So recently I’ve been really strict with myself and not helped. I’ve even ignored his sobs that he doesn’t want to play the game anymore and required that he continue. Was he suffering significant distress? Well he had forgotten his concern within a minute and become re-immersed in the game. At six he sobs when he is told the television is being turned off or that I want him to eat some vegetables.
Has he been put off maths because of my callous, uncaring drive to hothouse him for 20 minutes a day? Of course he flippin hasn’t! If only I had had a camera to take the photo of his super cute (to his mother) victory wiggle dance when he finally conquered the third level of multiplication he had been repeatedly stuck on. I think he felt he now ruled the world! As adults our job is surely not to cocoon our children from distress or only allow struggle when it is self imposed. We must protect children from excessive distress but seem to have a very low threshold for judging that and thus we prevent our children experiencing the very lessons we value.
My son has also learnt more, faster by being required to struggle. My daughters’ KS2 teachers have found their capacity to work steadily through large amounts of maths work quite remarkable and they insist maths is their favourite subject because they enjoy being good at it. This illustrates to me that our reluctance to REQUIRE our children to struggle holds them back and lowers their own ‘pain thresholds’ when it comes to hard work (by which I mean spending a few minutes doing something they didn’t fancy doing). TBH I am just not sure how transferable my son’s newly learnt resilience will be to different contexts. However, I am convinced that while our attempts at character education are big on exhortation and decry non-negotiable experience, we’ll have little more success changing behaviour long term than Nick Jr or Saturday Kitchen.