How about those seeds? Are they growing?

September_-_back_to_work_-_back_to_school_-_back_to_BOOKS_LCCN98509757It’s been a few years since starting this blog, as my first post kicked off the new year in 2012 – my how time flies! Here today in the Fall of 2015, I am still a “professor and parent who thinks deeply about education” – and now perhaps even more so than before! When I started this blog, my daughter was happily and sensorially engaged in her Montessori preschool. Now, four years later, she is officially a “school-aged youth,” grappling with maintaining steady advances in the cerebral more than the sensorial: reading, writing, and arithmetic carry the day now (along with Science, Social Studies, PE, Music, and Art too, of course).

We have homework nearly every night, and are working hard at maintaining a healthy balance in our lives: balancing work, structure, and free play on all fronts. It’s a serious juggling act. Some days we drop the balls, other days we keep them artfully afloat. We are human too, after all. Whilst juggling all the family and professional balls, I find myself musing about my own advice proffered here on the blog. Two questions often on my mind:

  1. Is my advice valid, that is, does it work in my own household?
  2. Is my advice still current or do I need to update my posts?

The short of it

Cutting to the chase, to question 1, I can happily report that yes, my advice does work. However, it is really important to realize that it isn’t always easy, and it takes constant monitoring and personal adjustments. To question 2, whereas my advice is indeed still sound, more can added. That’s what I plan to do this fall with the blog, and I start it here below.

The long of it

My remarks here today are based on advice I posed (directly or indirectly, as the case may be) early on in my blogging endeavor:

Here’s what I am thinking about these days, as I think about the posts.

Motivation: Seriously, it’s hard!

When it comes to homework, “Grandma’s Rule” (i.e., Premack’s principle) is wonderfully powerful. Screen-time AFTER homework is a must in our household, never minding the fact that my not-so-little-one is doing some pretty amazingly cool things in Minecraft these days (e.g., she’s using a companion pixel art program to transform Alex into “herself” complete with long hair, blue eyes, pink top, blue pants, and purple boots). And if homework takes too long, then there’s just no screen time to be had. That’s the breaks. If screen time comes first, homework doesn’t get done.

And yet, it takes A LOT more than grandma’s rule to keep motivation healthy and helpful though – quite a bit more. Some days she needs a little bug in her ear reminding her that “struggling” is indeed worth it, and in fact the way learning happens. Carol Dweck’s work on incremental / malleable mindsets and the “and yet” perspective shared in the TEDx talk linked to her name here are regularly discussed in our house, not in theoretical terms, but in terms of how we talk about learning on a personal level. We are careful to use “malleable” language and we deliberately encourage our daughter to do the same.

Sometimes reminding her that struggling and improvement go hand-in-hand isn’t what’s needed though. Sometimes, instead, what we need to do is hone-in on her motivation at a different level. All kids often struggle with the “why am I doing this?” reaction to learning (and practicing) the basics in math and spelling, for example. It’s not that she doesn’t “get” the “struggle = learn” idea, but that she just doesn’t always see the point. This is where an understanding of the complexity of achievement motivation really comes in handy, because when intrinsic interest isn’t there to carry the day, it can be HARD to focus on doing well.

What do we do, in these cases? We remember that the two ends of the spectrum — intrinsic & extrinsic – sandwich a few intermediate steps towards autonomy, and we evaluate which one is needed. With our child (and I suspect this is true for many), starting at the extrinsic level – where behavior is externally guided with performance charts and tangible rewards – rarely, if ever works. When she really wants something, she’ll work through a chart once to earn it, but once she’s earned her prize, she’s back to square zero. So that’s not at all effective. This has never helped her learn.

Rather, to help her learn, we have to intervene at the “Introjection & Integrated” levels, starting with a bug in her ear. Introjection is more powerful than extrinsic rewards: she loves her parents wants to make them proud. And when she notices that her hard work yielded a positive outcome, the work makes her proud too. That cycle is a necessary one for to repeat over and over.

  • The bug in ear. The introjection level is a step up from extrinsic and a step closer towards autonomy, where emphasis is placed on internalizing a message someone else delivers: “hear my words in your mind: it’s important to master this! Once you know this, you can do ____ next”).
  • Pride in accomplishment. The integrated level is where a learner recognizes that even though they did the work because they were “told” to, they see the value in it, and that perspective (“yup, this is boring, but I see how it helps me…”) becomes motivating, in and of itself.

The power of retrieval practice – it’s so worth the effort!

In terms of effective learning, motivation is only part of it. When it comes to the actual work of learning, not all methods are created equally. As her school work gains in complexity, I find myself applying principles from cognitive psychology to help structure her work at home. I thought I’d share one example today, about how we use the principle of retrieval practice to help with spelling.

“Retrieval practice” is a fancy term for repeated testing. When given a choice between self-testing and “review & repetition,” retrieval practice carries the day. This is 100% true for my daughter when it comes to spelling. When all she does throughout the week is re-write her spelling list over and over, she doesn’t perform well on the end-of-week assessment. It’s really easy to space-out when engaged in rote repetition like that. It’s not a good use of a learner’s time.

Instead, what we do at home is start with verbal challenges – we don’t write a thing. It takes planning to do this, but it’s actually kind of fun too (definitely more fun that rote repetition). Here’s what we do over the course of a few days:

Sitting together, I hold the list and she listens & responds:

  • I say the word, then spell it verbally
  • She says the word, then spells it verbally
  • We work through the list

Then, (this is fun!)

  • I say the word and the first letter
  • She says the next letter
  • I say the next letter …and we do this until the word is spelled
  • Then we swap, where she starts each word

Then (this is satisfying)

  • We do a practice test to evaluate which words need still attention and we repeat our cycle until the list is mastered

This cycle works like a charm. Why does verbal practice win-out over repeated writing? It “wins” because the verbal practice challenges her to focus her energy on two fronts:

  • She is challenged to focus her attention on keeping letter ordering in mind
    • Retrieval practice uses more energy than repetition
  • She is combining auditory signals with semantics
    • She “hears” the sound of the word, the sound of the letters that make the word, and she “sees” the word written in her mind (because I coach her to do this too)
    • This combination of multi-modal practice enhances her chances of successful retrieval during test-time

I wish I could say we do this successfully each and every week, but as it turns out, we don’t always. The cycle above takes some planning so that we have time to do the work together. If only she could do things like this during the day at school, her spelling would be so much better across the board!

In closing today, it’s fun to reflect on my writing AND, I think, important to keep ensuring that my advice is sound. I’ll try to do more of this in the coming months too, time permitting (as my blog followers will note, my posting rate is really slow right now: my daily responsibilities at work are very involved right now, preventing me from spending much time here on WordPress, “Giving Psychology Away). I hope this will prove interesting and useful for you readers out there.

As always, as well, if you’d like to share your own experiences with nurturing learning either at home or in the classroom, please share here! I’d love to chat about it.

Alternatively, if you have something to say, but prefer the less formal setting over on Facebook, you could join in (or start up) a conversation over there on my companion CognitionEducation Facebook group. Over there, in addition to sharing links to my posts here, I also “pin up” and discuss recent news stories that cause me to stop and pause. I’d love to see your “faces” AND “thoughts” over there too.

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