In my first year of university, I had a professor in a business class who was a big fan of W. Edwards Deming. Deming is credited as the founder of the quality movement, particularly in manufacturing. Deming published a list of principals called the 14 Points, a list of approaches to management to help create a quality-focused working culture.
They are incredibly useful, even today. However, Point 8, “Drive out fear” puzzled me and my classmates. This is a workplace, what could people be afraid of? They are professionals, they are doing work they have expertise in, and helping the company succeed. What could possibly make people afraid? I have to admit we snickered a bit every time it came up. “BOO!”
Our patient prof explained that there was an authoritarian management style where bosses and managers rule by fear, and use it as a motivator. He agreed with Deming, and felt this was counterproductive, since fear causes people to avoid talking about problems, and motivates them to game systems. You will have a hard time finding out the truth from people who are afraid. They will try to spin narratives towards something that reflects positively on them, rather than talking about problems customers face, for example. Under a fear based system, eventually, the system will be broken and customers will suffer, and decision makers will likely find out when it is too late. (This is often referred to as a theory x management style.)
However, there is a lot more to fear in the workplace. One of the most common underlying issues I dealt with as a consultant was fear. People have a lot of fears in the workplace, even in consensus-driven, people-focused workplaces. People are afraid of losing their jobs, or of not moving up in an organization. They are afraid of losing money or status, and what that means in their professional and personal lives. They are afraid of making a mistake. They are afraid of certain kinds of changes, and they are afraid of upheaval. They are afraid of certain tasks, and certain aspects of their jobs. They are afraid of certain people, sometimes for subtle reasons. They are afraid of looking stupid, or not knowing an answer. They are afraid of asking certain kinds of questions, and they are afraid of providing blunt, honest feedback. They are afraid of disruption, or of disrupting something themselves.
Imagine what all that fear is doing to their well being and ability to think clearly and carefully about problems, let alone what it is doing to overall team productivity.
In my experience, the less fear, the more effective a team is. In fact, one of the most effective things a team can do to build up workers and be more productive is to reduce sources of fear. Fear steals so much energy and obscures good problem solving communication. You can’t deal with all the fears we have in the workplace, and those change due to environmental conditions and events. However, when you create a culture that drives out fear, really good things happen. People are happier and more productive, and everyone benefits from that. If all I do is help a team reduce their fear, and that is all I am able to do, that team will be more productive when I move on to another project. Drive out fear is a powerful philosophy.
…one of the most effective things a team can do to build up workers and be more productive is to reduce sources of fear. Fear steals so much energy and obscures good problem solving communication.
When kiddo and I started doing homeschooling together, I observed similar patterns in him that I had seen in people in professional settings. There was a lot of fear there at times. He had similar fears. He was afraid of getting the wrong answer or just making a mistake. He was afraid of answering a question in case he got it wrong and felt foolish. He was afraid to ask me questions that might reveal he knew less than he was letting on. He was worried about my reactions, and how we dealt with conflict.
Instead of being an outside observer seeing patterns in a team, I had to face up to the fact that I was the source of a lot of his fear. That hard fact requires a lot of self reflection and working on my own behavior. It’s hard, but it’s a reality.
Observe the Child
The first thing I started to do was watch kiddo carefully. When did he stop engaging, and when did that start? When did his behavior shift from having fun to going silent? What was the source? Did he need a break? Did he need to go to the washroom? Was he just having a bad day? Or was there something in our approach together that was making him uncomfortable? When did things shift? Was it a direct question? Was it something he wanted to hide from me? Did we shift from fun to something decidedly unfun?
It was a lot of work, and I had to try to filter out typical child behaviors from those that were issues we could address. Kids get bored, or distracted, or just might not feel like doing schooly things today. To observe him while working with him was hard. I also watched him when he worked on learning apps. Learning apps tend to be based on teaching approaches, and are heavily influenced by the educational experiences of the app developers. As a result, the same patterns will appear when they are working on apps as they are in person.
I started to note the patterns where he felt pressure:
- Direct questions about his knowledge on a topic
- Closed ended questions
- Starting a new topic
- Trying an exercise on a new topic
- Reviewing his work
I also noticed patterns in our approach where his behavior would shift from engaged to disengaged.
- Dad talking too much
- Spending too much time on an exercise
- Closed ended worksheet questions
- Time pressure
A lot of these had underlying fear issues. Many of these were a direct result of my leadership/teaching style. Gulp.
Next I had to take a hard look at myself. Kids are kids, and we can’t expect them to manage their emotions or be as self aware as adults. I couldn’t expect him to change his behavior that much, I had to look at what I could change to support him.
One thing I noticed was my body language, my tone of voice, and how those could be sources of fear or discomfort for him. I’m bigger than him, so I would inadvertently tower over him when he felt on the spot, asking a question. Or, I might raise my voice while repeating a concept that wasn’t clicking for him. I worked on my body positioning and trying not to raise my voice, or spend too long with “teacher voice” explanations.
In my software design work, I found that body language can be subtle and influential. In my design book, I talk about how during user tests of new software designs we can unintentionally encourage test subjects with subtle body movements. We might tilt our head towards the answer we want, or shift our body slightly. We might frown when someone does something when we hope they do something else, and smile when they do what we were hoping they might do. We might tap a pointer or pen towards the answer we want.
This was a lot more difficult, but I started to work on being more bland and flat when I asked questions, and I resisted any movement that might hint at what the answer might be. I knew it was working when he would stop and observe me more carefully before committing to an activity or answer. He was looking for the cues that weren’t apparent anymore. In fact, we even had a conversation or two about it, and he admitted to gaming the system by watching my tells. Thankfully, we were able to turn this into a humorous activity and have some fun with it, which contributed to him feeling safer and more secure in his learning with me.
Make Sure Kids See You Make Mistakes!
I knew we were making progress, but I still felt like kiddo was feeling pressure from my behavior. Fortunately, I have skilled professionals I can talk to. My friend Dr. Katie Crossman is an education expert. Katie has elementary school aged kids as well, and we would share experiences as our respective kiddos were learning at home. When I talked about trying to drive out fear from our learning experiences, she suggested I point out when I make mistakes. Katie talked about her knitting hobby, where you rip out sections you have already knitted, and start over if you have made a mistake. (This is known as “frogging.”) It can look frustrating to an outsider, but it is just part of the process. Katie told me that when she discovers she needs to “rip it”, she calls over her kids to show them and talk it through. There are lots of mistakes we silently make around the home, and if we stop and show our kiddos, it is a good learning experience.
There are a couple reasons this is important. When kids are homeschooling, they are learning things that we as adults learned many years ago, and the knowledge is second nature to us. If we ask them a question, it might be a challenge and they have to think, but to us, we have the answer instantly. Since they aren’t around a group of their peers, it can make them feel like they are always wrong, and we are always right. For example, think of teaching a simple math concept like 1 + 1 to a smaller child. They pause and work through, while we answer instantly. Or, they may ask us out of context of learning, and we just know the answer, without realizing they might be testing us. We’re adding pressure, even though we don’t mean to, or are unaware of it.
The other opportunity we have with showing our mistakes is to model our behavior for them. What do we do when we make a mistake? How do we solve the problem and move on? Do we get frustrated and give up? Do we research and try again? Do we call in an expert if it is a problem we can’t fix? These are extremely important lessons that take a lot of thought and self discipline to master. (Note, surprise home repairs are not always a good learning experience unless you want to model frustrated noises, angry tool selection and swear words.)
My kiddo and I started this together, and he was shocked at first. Dad can make mistakes? Wow! Once we got over the initial surprise, I would tell him stories about mistakes I made at work, or presenting to a crowd, or working on hobbies. I shared one story of when I made a mistake woodworking with a friend. We were making a workbench for my garage, and I was supposed to drill out holes to counter sink bolts. I drilled out the holes to countersink in the wrong spot, and it looked awful. My master cabinet maker friend sent me out of the shop to get coffee. While I was gone, he ran the boards through a planer to sand away my mistake, then had me do it again. I was surprised he could figure out how to fix it, and he laughed and said: “That’s the difference between an amateur and a professional. A professional knows how to fix their mistakes.” That story resonated with him, and this phrase became a bit of a mantra in our home.
I also told of embarrassing mistakes (I once presented to a group with a line of whiteboard marker drawn across my forehead), stupid mistakes (I misspelled an item in an inventory system as a joke, which muddled up the counts), and expensive mistakes. (Early in my career I made a mistake that cost the company thousands of dollars. I was sure I was going to get fired, but my manager said, why would he fire me after spending thousands of dollars training me not to make that mistake again?)
Thanks to Katie’s advice, we started to create our own fearless culture about working with mistakes. Talking about mistakes, regaling stories of mistakes of the past, reading stories about mistakes, pointing out my mistakes and walking through how to solve them, and most importantly not punishing in any way for kiddo’s learning mistakes.
Create a Safe Learning Space
Environments are crucial to feeling secure and productive. Since we were at home, we started out by dedicating a learning space that provided consistency. I worked with kiddo to put up posters he found helpful, and to have our materials nearby. He added his own personal touches and felt like he owned the space. Previously, we had been much more ad hoc, and task switching from play to learning could be tricky. Beyond that though, I wanted to make sure we had a learning relationship where he could feel comfortable asking any question he wanted without judgment, and mistakes weren’t viewed as a negative thing.
I talked to a teacher friend, and she suggested that I create “judgment free” activities. Turn kiddo loose on an activity, and don’t evaluate it in any way. Reward for doing something, anything, even if it doesn’t resemble the goals of the activity. One of her favorites is daily journal writing. Get kiddo to write down whatever they would like, and reward them for doing the thing, not on the actual contents of their writing. This worked well for the most part. Sometimes he would scribble and doodle, other times he would draw a picture and write a few sentences. Or he might write down birthday gift ideas. On bad days, I encouraged him to write down his negative feelings about me, which he didn’t need to share. He could keep his thoughts private, or, if he was more comfortable letting me know how he really felt, he could write it down. No matter what he wrote, I didn’t judge it, and only read it if he wanted me to.
One important aspect of a safe learning space is to create safety net that encourages mistakes that don’t have overly negative consequences. I discussed this with an earlier post: Fail Fast and FAFO. It can be as simple as putting down plastic to protect surfaces from messy experiments, or as complex as a discussion about a mistake with a hard consequence.
Feeling Psychologically Safe
I described approaches to feeling psychologically safe in learning in this post: Adventures in Homeschooling: Fail Fast and FAFO. There are a couple of areas related to fear that I wanted to expand on. First of all, with the fears themselves, it is important to help kiddos identify their sources of fear. Sometimes those sources might be surprising, and sometimes they might feel a bit trivial to an adult. However, it is absolutely vital to not diminish or invalidate their fears. Imagine fears you had as a child. No matter how irrational they might seem now, they feel real, and they are stealing energy away from being happy and productive in things kids need to be happy and productive in. Whether that is play, daydreaming, solving a problem or learning with you. Identify, validate and discuss fears. Don’t dismiss them or undermine them.
The second area I want to talk about today is in creating a psychologically safe home environment. This brings us to philosophical or values-driven approaches to parenting and home life. My partner and I like the positive parenting approach. It seemed to match our values and the kind of environment we wanted for kiddo. In short, we approach with a warm, kind, yet firm approach. There is structure, but we don’t enforcement it through fear or demanding compliance. There are consequences for actions, but we want to make sure that they are understood and developmentally appropriate. There is respect, but it is earned rather than demanded. Most of all, we look at filling up self-esteem at home. The analogy of a “self esteem bucket” is a popular one. The way we interpret it is that when you are out in life, there are lots of things that can get you down. Your home is a refuge where you can always go to recharge, and part of our job as parents is to help kiddo fill his self-esteem bucket when he is with us.
While all this sounds great on paper, and we read books and attended workshops and worked on this approach, we had to adjust and make it our own. First off, as Xer parents, this is the opposite of how we were raised. Secondly, your kiddos really determine your path. What seems good on paper needs adjusting due to the needs of your own kiddo. However, even when we get it wrong, we work on creating a safe environment. We want kiddo to know that we are his biggest fans, we are always in his corner, no matter what. There is nothing he can do or get wrong that will make us stop loving him or feel supported. We want him to be fearless about solving problems and being responsible for figuring out his own life. That means he will get things wrong, he will do things we don’t like, and he will fail at things. All of these things are important to grow through, and our job is to help support him through that.
A psychologically safe learning environment means that the consequences from learning actions don’t come with moralizing or judgment. They are learning opportunities, and he is always accepted, always supported, always safe, and always loved. We try to handle conflict in supportive ways. When voices get raised, tempers flare, and we don’t respect our own approach to working together, we own up to it, apologize and work to do better. In fact, these homeschool conflicts led to a family motto:
We are a problem-solving family.
We use science, knowledge, skill, respect and empathy to work together to try to solve any problem that may come up. We often get it wrong, but we really try to work together to focus on the fact that mistakes help us learn!
Reducing Math Anxiety
I watched my kiddo when we were doing math, and I started to notice patterns where he would show signs of anxiety. He’d stop smiling, he’d stiffen up, he might go quiet, or he might start to distract to get out of doing something. At first I found this frustrating, but eventually I realized that these were important cues. At first, this would happen every time I tried to pose a math question. “How many fingers am I holding…” or “How many do I have if I add these together…” or if I put a worksheet in front of him. He might enjoy it at first, and then I would see him tense up as he answered the questions. I realized that these questions and activities are high risk for a kid. You are either correct or not. When we worked with other subjects like literacy, there were key differences. We:
- don’t expect perfection and exact precision.
- reward for engagement and effort.
- make room for individual ideas and creativity.
- are patient when a concept isn’t mastered right away.
When you compare how we teach math and how we teach kids how to read, the difference is stark. Imagine if we were working on letter sounds, and we told them they were wrong if they pronounced the “short a” sound slightly incorrectly? What do we do instead? We reward effort, we gently correct, and we give them lots of time and room to improve with practice. On the other hand, what do we do with math? We present them with a question, and if they don’t get it 100% correct, it is wrong. That’s it. While it’s important to have precision in math, we put demands on kiddos that they don’t need before they are ready.
Here is an example from an online school experience we had. Over the course of a week, kiddo was given two assignments that he could work on every day. A writing assignment, and a math assignment. His writing assignment ended up being a short “five finger” style with a topic sentence, three descriptive sentences, and one that explained his feelings on the topic. It had a run on sentence or two, some missed punctuation, and a couple of words were spelled phonetically, but incorrectly. What was his grade? Top marks. He met the rubric for the assignment, and got a big thumbs up. While he had some small mistakes, those were fine for his level, and would get dealt with as he learned more over the next couple of years. His math assignment though, was a different story. There were 25 simple arithmetic questions to complete each day, with a total of 100. He got 1 of them incorrect, and the assignment was returned to him, and he was asked to correct that one question. How do you think that made him feel? Was it necessary to demand perfect precision in a math assignment when no other subjects in first grade are marked that way?
I described some approaches of how we overcame math anxiety in this post Adventures in Homeschooling: Embracing Math Mistakes. While the topic is mathematics, these approaches help with any kind of topic where there is learning anxiety.
Reducing Writing Anxiety: Drafts vs. Final Versions
Math anxiety was the first hurdle to overcome, but similar fears cropped up in literacy and especially in handwriting. We are proponents of learning good handwriting skills, both printing and cursive. More importantly, kiddo is extremely motivated to write. He loves the Story Pirates podcast and takes part in their workshops and works on his own original stories. Handwriting helps this process, but it is challenging to learn, and it can take years to get complete mastery. Beyond handwriting, writing itself is hard, and you almost never get it right on the first try. When kiddo would get frustrated with his letter writing practice, or that something he was trying to write wasn’t clear, his Mom and I both talked about “drafts vs. final versions” in writing. Both of us are pro writers, and neither of us have submitted something to an editor and had them publish it verbatim. We’ve always had to revise a draft, often several times, before it was ready to print.
When kiddo struggles because he needs to redo writing work, we remind him that he is working on drafts, and the final version will emerge. He shouldn’t be overly focused on trying to get it right the first time, he should focus on getting his ideas and creativity out. Then you start editing, and working on your draft. Once you are happy with it, you submit it. Creating and enhancing “drafts” of writing feels safer, there is less pressure to get it right the first time, and it models real world writing. You almost never get it right the first time, and pushing to at least one draft after your first attempt always results in a better final product. This has created another family motto:
Is it a draft or a final version?
It turns out that thinking about checking and revising your work isn’t just related to writing. We can apply this to all sorts of work, and it takes the risk out of it.
Iterate towards a solution.
Drafts in a non-writing discipline can be thought of as iterative or incremental solutions. If you need to, you work through a few versions until you finalize your work. This isn’t a sign of a problem, it’s a sign that you are human and you don’t need to be perfect.
When you work in software development, you almost never get anything right the first time. In fact, because working over time towards a solution is so inherent in STEM, there are entire software development processes related to iterative design and development. Rather than feeling pressure to come up with the correct solution in a hurry, like a timed math test, you are far more productive, not to mention a lot faster and efficient, if you iterate towards a solution. You get the right answer, but you take the time to use the right problem solving approach, and you get it wrong a few times before you get it right. Over time, the simpler patterns that you use over and over become second nature, and you focus your energy on the really hard problems.
This mindset works extremely well for kiddos who are learning. We want the right answer, but going slow to go fast and working through and learning from mistakes takes a lot of pressure off of them. If they don’t feel like they have to get all the answers correct the first time, they can actually slow down and learn from their mistakes, rather than memorizing answers out of fear of failure. Iterating towards a solution rather than passing or failing takes a lot of the fear out of learning. It is also much more realistic in the workplace. I almost never have to urge a new grad to work more quickly. In fact, they usually come out of school feeling like they have to get the correct answer as quickly as possible, and that is counter productive. They rush, they are full of fear about getting the wrong answer, and that gets in the way of learning and productivity. It also slows everything down. When people rush and try to get the correct answer quickly, it creates extra work and rework, and it is incredibly disruptive. Iterating and learning as you iterate is a vital skill to learn, and it helps people feel like they can be human and make mistakes safely. Furthermore, many mistakes lead to innovative solutions, so they are a vital part of the process both in learning and in product development.
Curiosity and Research
Another area we try to foster is for self-directed learning. What do you find interesting? What do you want to learn about? What aspect or thread of what you have been working on do you want to explore? What topic has cropped up that you want to look into further? We then look for resources on the shelf or online. Sometimes these end up as multi-day projects if kiddo has a learning itch that he really needs to scratch. Sometimes a single video or article is enough to satisfy his curiousity.
The trick here is to encourage learning on whatever the topic might be, even if it seems unrelated. That can be a bit jarring when you are teaching a particular topic and that causes an unrelated learning urge. It’s hard to be flexible and let go of that lesson and instead follow the energy of the kiddo. The benefits are amazing though, learning becomes more interesting, and they start to take responsibility for their own education. They also get their own way, which is important to them. Interest in a topic is one of the most powerful learning motivations. As a home school parent, I feel a responsibility to encourage that behavior, since it will serve kiddo well throughout their school career, and as a lifelong learner.
Thankfully, there are a ton of resources available thanks to technology. You can watch world renowned experts on videos, you can take part in online workshops and classes, you can play related games, you can download materials, or order manipulatives and books online, delivered to your doorstep. You can watch reels on social media, you can follow hashtags, and watch livestreams of nature events or animals. It is mind boggling how much technology can be used for research and learning. Tech is your learning friend, if you use it that way.
Engagement over Mastery
I have become a big fan of modular learning, and that has influenced our homeschool approach. Kiddo has unique needs, and he thrives when there is a balance of structured and unstructured learning. Modular learning also fits how we learn as adults with on-the-job training, attending conferences and workshops, getting certifications, etc. Both of his parents have changed careers, and undertaken training online and in-person to facilitate that. We’ve taught him to treat technology as a learning tool in addition to an entertainment tool, and it fits his personality. We discovered Modulo App, and that has been a huge help for us as we plan out a course together with learning, and look for hands-on tools and ideas we can actually apply to learning.
While we really like Modulo App and have utilized it to help, there is one thing they highlight that I disagree with. They talk about a mastery approach to learning:
“In a mastery-based approach, learning is personalized, students learn at their own pace, sequentially, take as much time as they need to fully master one concept before moving on to the next concept in the sequence, and the educator takes responsibility for the outcomes. In 1-1 mastery-based learning, one tutor supports one student through this approach, customizing the learning process to fit their pace and unique learning modalities.”
This is an area that my experience has caused me to disagree with. In fact, I prefer repeated exposure rather than pushing to mastery. This is especially true in early elementary when developing literacy skills and math number sense can take years to master.
To be completely honest, I find Bloom overrated in general. We are also not a family who respects hierarchy or authority that much, and none of us like being told we can’t do something. My responsibility as kiddo’s learning coach looks like this: if he wants to learn differential equations at 8 years old, then it is my job to figure out how to explore the topic in terms that he understands. I make the differential equations relevant to him, explain at his current level, and then create activities that are within his current math skill, with just enough challenge to help learn. If it’s too much, we set it aside and try again. We despise gatekeeping around learning. We value trying and failing, trying again, trying a different approach, leaving it and coming back to it, etc.
In our experience, pushing to mastery too soon is another source of fear and anxiety, at least in our household. Instead of pushing for mastery, we push for engagement. A lot of learning theory overlooks the interest levels of the kiddo who is sitting there trying to do the work. It’s all well and good to use modern approaches with scientific underpinning, with relevant, fun, hands-on activities that are rich and in safe, supportive environments. If the kiddo isn’t interested in learning though, you aren’t going to get very far. However, we may start a lesson with a completely disinterested kiddo. In fact, this can happen more often than we might care to admit.
If kiddo isn’t interested in a topic at first, it is my job to help him. I do this by trying to make activities and lessons fun and relevant. I draw from his interests such as Minecraft, Pokemon, Bayblades and video games. I also try to get him moving and use manipulatives, or explore with software. I try to use humour and make things interesting. If I get it right, he transitions from disinterest or downright shutting down on me to some form of engagement. If he gets the gist of the lesson, and then makes it his own, then we are on the road to mastery. If I push for him to memorize facts or to repeat until he can show mastery, kiddo will shut down and we won’t make much progress. Or, he will memorize facts that help in the short term, but are quickly forgotten because he hasn’t understood the underlying reasons for what the lesson was. For example, memorizing words in a book make it appear that he is reading fluently, but moving to a new book he now struggles with, shows he hasn’t developed mastery yet. Or in math, he may move around a number line and get the correct arithmetic answers, but a few weeks later, he has forgotten how to do it because he wasn’t trying to solve a math problem, he was gaming a manipulative.
Instead of pushing for mastery, we push for engagement. A lot of learning theory overlooks the interest levels of the kiddo who is sitting there trying to do the work.
An exploration-based approach to learning, coupled with aspects of self-directed learning or unschooling means that kiddos are going to come up against learning lessons that are beyond their current capabilities. That’s fine, and that can be managed in various ways. If they are really interested and committed, often they will surprise you and grasp concepts that curriculum systems gatekeep for later years of school. Other times, they get exposure, they try, they realize they aren’t ready, and you file it away to try again later. Mastery appears in time, and that is something you watch for and encourage. After a while, mastery is the consistent observed behavior in a topic, but it also has all this extra richness around it that experimentation, fun and time passing can add to it.
Any kind of pressure, no matter how well meaning, is important to identify and push out. Instead of correct behavior and mastery, watching kids make things their own and grasp the underpinning theory is much more important to our learning. Even in cases where educators encourage children to “find their own way” or figure out their own way to solve problems can be a source of stress. Instead, it is something I watch for and encourage when I see it. When it doesn’t happen naturally, I provide a variety of approaches to solving a problem, and they develop preferences, and eventual mastery in several approaches. This takes time, and requires breaking up the materials, rather than focusing solely on a topic and not moving on until they have shown mastery. Furthermore, sometimes a topic doesn’t click at the time, and falls into place weeks, months, or even years later. That’s how we all learn, and how we all keep learning and find it interesting. “You learn something new every day” is often related to something that you didn’t understand in the past, but repeated exposure in different ways leads to eventual understanding.
Bottom line: when mastery appears, encourage it, but don’t enforce it. Engaged kiddos will learn a lot, even if it isn’t directly related to the task at hand. Kiddos who display mastery quickly may have memorized patterns and not grasp the underlying material. I prefer to follow the energy of the kiddo and see what happens over time.
Context and Comprehension
One other thing I use to change the game for him is context.
In math, “2 + 2 = 4” is only valid within the correct context. It isn’t immutable, no matter what the hardcore education people like to chirp on about. Things are only valid or invalid in their context. To break the anxiety and pressure cycle, sometimes we brainstorm around meaning of math facts. What if “+” meant something else? How would I explain this to an alien? Then I show kiddo when ” 2 + 2 = 4″ is false. If they are integers, it is correct, but if they are strings, “2 + 2 = 22”, and if they are floats, “2 + 2 = 4.0”. I have spent a lot of time on the symbology of math, and how we can challenge those ideas in fun or interesting ways. “Right” is only correct in the right context, and being able to turn that context switch on and off is extremely important. In the real world, understanding context is vital, because if you leap to a solution by just looking at the symbols, you usually get it wrong. Slowing down and getting context, asking clarifying questions, reading everything, etc is important. Once again though, to flip the script, I will ask for wrong answers only first, and see if we can devolve into silliness to get the brain going. It might take hours, days or weeks for this transition, if my experience has anything to show for it.
Understanding context is important, because correctness is completely context dependent. With math symbols in particular, computer programming is a domain where the symbols change. Since my kiddo wants to learn to code, we show him the differences. For example, “x” is the traditional symbol for multiplication, but in many programming languages, it is a “*”. The equals sign “=” is often an assignment operator, and is frequently changed to double equals “==” when programming. As a result, “1 x 1 = 1” isn’t going to work in many computer languages. Instead, it would look like “1 * 1 == 1”. While the meaning is the same, the symbology is different.
Context discussions are important for solving word problems in school, for developing critical thinking skills, and understanding the difference between facts and opinions. There is also a nice side effect: they take the sting out of being wrong. One fun exercise when kiddo is disappointed in getting the wrong answers, and after we review work and he figures out solutions to what he missed, we have philosophical discussions about what it means to be right and wrong. Under what context would his answers be correct? What if the symbols meant something different? What if we were on a backwards planet? What if we had a disability or a challenge that made things appear different to us than our teachers? What if it was a planet run by kids?
Instead of getting caught in a morass of moral relativism or confusing absurdly harmful opinions as valid as scientific fact, we explore the context around meaning. Ok, so you got most of your math questions wrong, and you learned what you missed, but now, can you think of how your approach might be correct? Under what circumstances would this not be wrong? Or, maybe you misinterpreted directions and wrote a position paper on the wrong topic. Your arguments were cogent, your writing was clear, but you missed an important detail. How do you learn from that? How can you re-use your existing work for something else?
Another side effect of these discussions is that it really pushes you as a teacher to understand the theory behind the learning. That also means that kiddo is trying to make sense of concepts as well. For example, you may understand how to multiply fractions, but do you know why it works? Can you explain what is happening in real terms? Context shifts force you as a learning coach and kiddo as a learning machine to start from first principles. Understanding context and meaning leads to much deeper comprehension, which leads to a better set of knowledge as a lifelong learner and problem solver.
Real World Examples
A lot of times in school we are encouraged to memorize facts and formulas and produce correct answers in a short period of time. This looks good on exams and on metrics regulatory bodies use to evaluate learning, but it doesn’t encourage comprehension or experimentation. “But Why???” is an extremely powerful learning tool. “Why do I have to learn this? When will I ever use this as an adult?” are great opportunities for us to explain why it’s important to have these skills. Many times we don’t know ourselves, so it’s a great chance to say: “I don’t really know. Let’s research and learn together!”
Thankfully with technology, we can get these answers, either through using our mobile devices or a PC. We can find real world experts, we can find lots of explanations, and we can find real world stories where people have used that one thing to do amazing things in their jobs, for research, and sometimes for all of humankind. Real world examples also help put context around learning, but more importantly, they can inspire us. We can find people who we can relate to, whether it is someone of a similar gender, ethnocultural background, or just someone who we like, their stories can inspire interest and a desire to learn more. These stories that connect us to people that connect us to our curricula and to our daily learning are perhaps some of the most powerful motivators of all. When you hear about their doubts and fears and what they did to overcome them, and how they make a topic come alive, it’s exciting for kiddo and adult learning coaches alike.
It’s not so scary when a cool person you found online overcame their fears and challenges and applied something you are trying to learn in interesting ways.