How can the process of learning have momentum? Some days a student “gets it” then the next day the same concept is lost. The human brain forgets, stumbles, supposedly demonstrates achievement, but then disappoints. Momentum and learning seem to be opposite concepts, especially for students who think in a realm somewhere the rest of us cannot locate.
This is what most parents of my students believe. In fact, in my 20 years of experience, the majority of teachers believe this to be true also. Education’s schematic is based on years of achievement called grades. Standardized tests supposedly measure advancement. Even assignments are evaluated by points to determine where growth in this spectrum of learning.
Belief that learning has little or no momentum of its own is so critical to teaching that I am convinced if parents and teachers reversed their thinking on this one concept, then cognitive blocks to learning would be freed-up, and the length of time required to understand would be shortened. A large part of my job as a Cognitive Developer is spent encouraging others to discover this momentum and realize it needs all roadblocks cleared for success.
Here’s an example. “I don’t care how many times my daughter has to repeat third grade, as long as she understands what she needs before going on to fourth grade.” This quote from a well-known child psychologist exemplifies the belief that a student cannot and should not proceed to more difficult work until less difficult work is mastered. I estimate every year 75% of my parents having a student in third grade become frustrated with multiplication facts because they believe division absolutely cannot be done without memorizing them all. “I’ve used flashcards and games every night, and he still doesn’t know his math facts,” parents say despairingly as they hire me to help with little hope of solving their child’s difficulty.
Yet, by moving on to division nearly all of these students (lacking multiple facts) are able to understand and solve division problems within an hour of one-on-one work. How can this be? It doesn’t fit the logical sequence of thinking. However, the human mind likes to know the reasons behind boring memorization. In many cases lists of spelling words or math facts are pointless until they are used in a more complex task such as writing a sentence or solving a division problem. Until there is understanding of how the little parts relate to the whole, continuing to focus on the little parts is a tedious mess for the brain to untangle. This is one way to remove the largest block that keeps momentum from beginning and continuing: allow students to progress even if not mastering a concept which seems necessary for progressing.
This same concept applies to social and other life skills. “My son is not ready for middle school because he wasn’t organized last year.” “My daughter is too shy for college and can’t attend until she’s comfortable with larger settings.” These are examples of blocking momentum by pointing out what cannot or has not been accomplished instead of focusing on what has been achieved. If I praise my dysgraphia students for making an “s” that does not look like a “5”, it is amazing how hard they will try to make every “s” in that sentence perfectly. Tell a shy child that their ideas are quite interesting, and that child is more likely to increase frequency of speaking and voice projection almost instantly. I have seen this many times. Remove the block preventing momentum for social and life skills by emphasizing small accomplishments and affirming achievements.
A third way to unblock momentum is by modeling the benefit of mistakes. My students delight in finding errors I make. This is not rude, because I encourage them to show me any errors they find. We sometimes laugh at my misspellings, or find where I forgot to subtract properly. “Ooops, Debra made a mistake and I’m glad you found it; I like mistakes because they help me do better work,” I often say. Likewise, when my students read incorrectly, or add inaccurately I simply say, “Humm, I think there is something not yet right here. Let’s look closer. Do you see anything that doesn’t make sense here?” As I guide them to locate their error, they become as excited as finding Waldo among tiny drawings.
There is a momentum to learning’s process. It’s not as obvious as gaining speed on a bicycle or increasing words-per-minute on a keyboard. But it exists in a subtle way, and once started it grows exponentially as students gain confidence and no longer fear mistakes. Block it and students will stagnate; unblock it and students will stretch.