Monday, September 08, 2008

Implications and expectations

On Sunday afternoon, we had coffee with our neighbours. They have an eight year old with a few as yet undefined learning difficulties, who is somewhat behind on his development. Nevertheless, his mother asked him to offer my husband a slice of cake from a large plate containing several slices. "Keep it level," she said, "Well done."

I was struck by the fact that (a) she started from an expectation that he would succeed and (b) she couched the guidance positively. Not "Mind you don't tip/drop/break it." What to do, as opposed to what not to do.

It put me in mind of the the things we hear people say to their children:

  • Mind you don't...
  • You're going to fall off there
  • Don't spill it
  • You're going to bump your head on that corner
  • Don't drop those
  • Don't mess
  • Don't splash
  • Put your shoes on or you'll cut your feet (a favourite in England, while we barefoot Africans wonder what on earth there is to cut your feet on in this green-and-thornless land)
We're always starting from an expectation of failure and warning against it.

I wonder how often we unconsciously even build that in to our learning resources for adults. Many of our clients seem to be trying to move towards a more positively couched, empowering design for learning resources, but even so, I think it sneaks in unnoticed. Think about:
This is an assessment that will tell you what you already know and where you need to focus your attention.
Wow! Personalised learning! But hang on. Suppose we start each module with a single sentence that says this module/section covers xyz and is aimed at users who abc. Maybe, just maybe the users are smart enough to figure out for themselves whether the module/section is something they need.
What you have learned in this section can be applied in xyz situations and will benefit you in abc ways.
Ooh! Skills transfer. Application. But suppose we asked the user to think about situations in which the material can be applied and what the benefits of these might be.

Just a thought.


V Yonkers said...

My husband came from the "negative" reinforcement upbringing whereas I came from a "positive" reinforcement. Growing up I heard things such as "of course you can. Can't is not a word we use in this house", and "you don't know unless you try."

The only time I get upset with my kids is when they can't answer the questions, "So what happened, what did you learn from that, and what will you do differently next time?" This has always been difficult for my husband to understand and he often is saying, "can't" and "don't do that".

I find the difference between his outlook and mine is that he is a much more negative person and tends to be very hard on himself when really it is circumstances outside of his control that have contributed to his failure. On the other hand, I fear my children are growing up to not take enough responsibility for their own actions when there is failure. It is a delicate line to walk!

The upsycho said...

It's a tough job alright... if you're doing it properly!

clithers said...

Then of course there's always the tendency to hear the most intersitng words in a sentence loud and clear and base action on those words alone. Inevitably they will be the words that immediatly follow "Don't". Then we wonder why kids do the opposite of what we tell them!
A brilliant riding instructor taught my daughters years ago, on the the principle of catching them doing it right then asking them to feel how it is to be getting it "spot-on".
It was inspiring, as a so-called learning expert, just to watch, listen and learn from her.