Good boy Daddy! – Intervention and Learning

One shovel at a time“It’s bit tricky for Miriam, Daddy…”, chirps my eldest daughter as she strains to lift the wheel of her loaded wheelbarrow – the most obvious way to change its direction.

“Yeah, I know honey. Wheelbarrows are a bit tricky.”

“Not honey, it’s Miriam!”

While moving some manure onto the garden with my two year old today, I was slapped in the face observing how kids learn in day-to-day life. It’s not obvious how to change the direction of a loaded wheelbarrow when it’s not moving. You’ve kinda got to leave the wheel stationery and walk yourself with the handles in the opposite direction that you actually want to go. Mim would repeatedly do the obvious thing – stand still holding the handles and try to lift the wheel to point it in the right direction. This technique worked fine when the barrow was empty…

Should I intervene and show her the ‘right’ way, or leave her to keep trying so that she can discover a way that works for her? Teacher intervention is something that I’ve been thinking about lots lately in the context of learning… how helpful is it for a facilitator to step in and show the right way? On the other hand, how helpful is it to leave learners feeling like they’re stumbling in the dark and getting frustrated trying to find a way that works?

That's beautiful Mim!“Whoopsie Daddy!” Mim tips the wheelbarrow sideways while trying another technique that seemed to work pretty well when she was moving forward but apparently doesn’t help when you’re not moving. We scoop up the ‘cow poo’ and I enjoy again standing over her, holding her hands on the handles and running through how we can turn the wheelbarrow to face the right direction by walking with the handles while the wheel doesn’t move. It’s the third or fourth time now, and I’m starting to think that the concept of moving the opposite direction from the one you want to point at is just a bit too complicated (out of Mim’s ‘Zone of proximal development‘?).

The question of when (or whether) to show someone a solution to a problem is one that I’m constantly facing at TAFE – especially in our Web Design class where there’s quite a range of learners and quite a steep learning curve. I usually try to encourage people to develop a strategy for attacking the problem that they’ve got (whether it’s isolating the error, googling the problem, or chatting with other learners about an approach). For some learners, this works well, but for others it’s a constant frustration…

“But can’t you just show me how to do it?”

Aah, pulling the barrow is much easierWhen learning a new technique or skill, I think it’s invaluable to have someone with expertise demonstrate how they approach the problem – most importantly, the strategies that they employ to investigate and develop a working solution. And I try to ensure this happens in our class. But sometimes the technique or skill is just a bit too far outside a learner’s “zone of proximal development” and they feel unable to apply the new skill to a problem of their own. In these situations I reckon sometimes it’s just time that’s required to fill in the gaps, and where possible an intermediate solution that might not be the best solution, but can be used by the learner to get the job done without too much frustration.

“Good boy Daddy! Dat’s beautiful.” – mimicks Mim as I tip the ‘cow poo’ onto the garden. We eventually found that it’s much simpler to pull the wheelbarrow in the direction that we want to go. That way there’s no confusion. This solution allowed Mim to enjoy the task at hand without frustration, and without having to learn the more difficult skill of manouvering the barrow when facing forwards. This wasn’t something she discovered herself, but she certainly learned the technique pretty easily as we enjoyed a beautiful father/daughter time together.

11 comments to Good boy Daddy! – Intervention and Learning

  • Hey Michael, Its been ages since I saw you guys but well it sounds like things are pretty similiar to how they were last time I saw you. You really do think things through, which is very cool.

    I have faced a similiar problem at work. Except that I think its worse because people have a problem and aren’t really interested in learning how to fix it for next time or they aren’t motivated and just ask you to fix it!

    Sometimes I just give in and do it because its easier, other times I manage to teach them a new skill but they often forget it again. And again.

  • That’s a very good story, and situation. It seems hard to know when you have to step in to show them. But I often feel that with something’s especially with languages that if you show them they won’t really get it. So I try to give them a hint or a partial solution, but then that just makes them angry and feel that I’m playing the fool with them.

    I remember when I was learning Java at Ultimo TAFE, some students would never get things right, and so they would ask and ask until they got it and then straight away pack up. So “they” did it, but they didn’t learn anything, they didn’t take note of the experience or of the problem solving methods.

  • Sounds like both you guys have to deal with people who aren’t motivated to learn but just wanted the ‘right answer’ to be checked-off.

    Simmo, I guess in your situation people just want to do their job. Maybe if they could see that with some simple strategies for solving their problems they could save time and get their job done faster?

    Edward, the situation you mentioned at Ultimo is crazy hey – I mean, where do we get the idea that “getting the right result” (through whatever means) is the same as understanding how to solve a problem. Problem solving is, I reckon, one of the most important skills to learn, but at School it’s not always taught… instead we’re shown how to get the right answer.

    I like your idea about partial solutions with hints. Kathy Sierra has some good ideas about designing activities like this (see point 6) Designing Activities) that I try to integrate into our own stuff, like the Javascript Challenges).

    Thanks for the input!

  • Rob McMicking

    Hey Michael,

    Greetings form Rob here in Melbourne at my computer at 9am ready to work!

    Thought your blog on learning was great! Very interesting, as I have been struggeling with that problem myself. When you do find things out yourself, it is a great sense of pride and satisfaction, but sometimes it can work the opposite when you feel you are just swimming in stuff you know nothing about, and the whole your in just seems to get deeper and deeper.

    I have struggled with the programming site exersise you gave us for the holidays. Just understanding what the words and ‘operations’ were was like a foreign language mostly. Depression certainly set in, and the project kept getting put off.

    Sometimes situations like this can be very daugnting and and if a answer isn’t found for yourself, can be debilitating with your learning. Too many trees.

    Mostly I do think finding things out yourself is great, but there are times, it is just too much and you do need a friendly helping hand.

    Only my thoughts. Am loving the whole experience!!

    Melbourne is GREAT! rain today so nice to stay in and work away at TAFE from here. Will send a blog soon.

    Love to all,

  • Hi rob! Glad you enjoyed the post :)

    It certainly is hard to find that balance between working to figure things out and drowning! My rule of thumb is that if you feel like you’re starting to sink or losing motivation fast then it’s time to get a helping hand!

    Of course, that’s a little hard when you’re so far away in Melbourne! (I’d not stress too much about the intro to programming at the moment, you’re time would be better spent with a good Javascript book and working through examples… easier to do when you’re on your own!)

    When you’re back in class, I’ll need to depend on you to tell me when you’re sinking though!

    Glad to hear Melbourne is great! Look forward to reading your blog post!

  • Rob McMicking

    Hey Michael,

    Thanks for your message. I was out first thing this morning and purchased “Javascript For The World Wide Web”. I’ll get my head into that. Hope I’ll be OK when I come out the other end. May need some counciling.

    Hope all is well in Bullaburra and Wenty.

    Till later,

  • [...] Wow. What a huge responsibility for all of us – teachers, parents, students, children, grandparents – we’re all ‘teachers’ in different aspects of our lives because we all live our lives demonstrating our learning, skills and attitudes. Being paid with public money to be a ‘teacher’ makes me want to model learning more than anything… but I’m still not certain that that’s what students want from me (for some learners, this works well, but for others it’s a constant frustration….see Good Boy Daddy – Intervention and Learning) [...]

  • Hi Michael,

    You’ve hilighted something very fundamental to how we learn and are taught – our personal developmental stages, and preferred learning styles at those stages. Our kids really bring that into focus, and even as adults we have to deal with our motivation, how we learn, whether we are ready to learn a new skill, whether we are able to learn it and even if ready and able – are we open to what is being taught around competing influences in our lives. A real challenge for teachers – and parents – as guides, facilitators and mentors.

    Talk to you soon,
    Ian B

  • [...] These points have been hammered home for me before (see “Good boy Daddy – Intervention and learning“) and every educational text will emphasise their importance. But this time I was the learner. I was the one whose biggest fear was being useless. I was the one who appreciated someone else’s expert guidence, grace and patience. I can’t help thinking how useful it has been to be thrown into a completely unfamiliar environment as an absolute beginner – maybe we should be intentional about throwing ourselves into these situations more often? [...]

  • [...] times to assume the Sage-on-the-Stage teacher role, or times to simply give the Right AnswerTM to avoid learner frustration, but under normal circumstances the most valuable things that your learners can learn from you are [...]

  • [...] – just make sure the learner gets to learn the process by doing the process. The biggest danger is learner frustration so be ready to intervene if necessary (and only if necessary!) You might scaffold the activity [...]

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