“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?
“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?”
When 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.