Saturday, 8 August 2009

Learning – Lessons learnt

Working with young children helps provide insight into learning. This blog is about lessons learnt by working with my grandchildren.

Lesson 1: Variations

In 2007, I drafted a paper in which I included some material on my grandchildren learning to distinguish between a duck and an owl. At that point, any big bird was automatically a duck. So the question was how do you help them distinguish the difference. The answer is by helping them to see the differences or variations between a duck and an owl. These differences might be in the environment or in the structure of the animal. You don't see an owl on a pond. An owl and a duck stand differently. The owl appears to be more upright. The differences in facial features and feet. All of these things help us distinguish between a duck and an owl. As we learn, we learn by increasingly recognising the variations that exist and how they make something what it is or is not.

There is a theory of learning that is related to the use of variations (variation theory) (Marton and Tsui 2003). This theory talks about the space of learning being created by the variations used in teaching. The variations define the enacted object of learning. This should relate to the teachers intended object of learning and the what the student takes away as the lived object of learning. When working with young children, the differences between the intended, the enacted, and the lived objects of learning become very visible.

Lesson 2: Learning from failure

I have had items in my collection for some time that talked about learning from failure (Dörner 1997, Gick and McGarry 1992, Ginat 2003). It has also been part of my thinking that students in learning to program, have to see some of their code fail in order to learn appropriate ways to write the code.

Over the last few weeks, I have been helping my grandchildren learn to ride a bicycle. They started on trainer wheels but now, my grandson is beginning to ride without them. Of course every now and then he rides into something or falls off but I encourage him to get up and try again. The question is can they learn to ride and in particular learn to balance without having the experience of falling off or failing to ride. Yes, there has been a struggle sometimes encouraging him to get back on but in the end, falling off is part of the learning process.

Schank (1997) talks of expectation failure. Children have this experience frequently in their learning process. My grandson expects to be able to ride without falling off and without having to think about what he is doing. He also thinks that he should always win in computer games (I will come back to this issue later). Failure can lead to giving up or it can be used to learn and to try a different approach. Without the expectation failure often nothing is really learnt. Learning and failure can go together if we can build the confidence to try again or approach the problem from a different perspective.

Lesson 3: Learning in games

This has really presented quite a challenge over the last few weeks. When our children were growing up, there was no such thing as computer games or video games. Now, my grandchildren have computer and video games all around them. They watch mum and dad winning and expect to win themselves. They don't understand that losing is as much part of the game as winning. Mum and dad don't seem to lose or if they do, they observe the protest.

I think of my own experience in playing Monopoly. One of the people that we played with insisted in any trade that he came off best. The result is that I won't have the game of Monopoly in my house. What did the game teach me? It didn't help me to learn to lose. I just wanted to escape. I wonder whether by bringing our children up playing games that reward winners and penalise losers whether we are encouraging a generation who will take the escape path.

It is difficult to encourage a child who is disappointed at losing to go on and try again. There seems to be no reward. Maybe we need games that are more a case of fostering having fun and being rewarded for encouraging and helping others.

Now that I have thought about this issue, I have decided that when I play some of these games with my grandchildren, I am going to purposely make mistakes and lose simply to encourage them and to show that I don't always succeed as well. Better still, I will look for games which they find easier to play and are less competitive in nature.

Lesson 4: Learning to serve

My major priority has been looking for employment but I have also been attempting to write research papers and do some programming (actually experimenting and testing the next version of FlashBuilder and the Flex SDK). When there are two young children in the house with expectations of being able to play often with a lot of noise and of granddad doing things with them, it can be difficult to make progress. Trying to enforce quiet behaviour isn't the solution. What really works is an adult spending time with them playing games, baking, going for walks, flying kites, … basically encouraging them to learn how to create their own fun.

As I reflect on the bringing up of my own children, I recognise that it was my wife, Marilyn who took on most of that responsibility. A classic example was planned expedition during one holiday period from our home in Onehunga up to One Tree Hill (the North Pole). The kids had to help plan the expedition. They were encouraged to be creative with the use of their time.

In this situation, we need to think carefully about our priorities. It is so easy to be caught up in our own activities and forget the needs of those around us. When those around us are young children, they don't necessarily understand that we want to get other things done. They create noise and place demands. We need to serve them and help them to build independence. We need to see that we can't play the games in front of them and then expect them not to want to play those games. We need to show constraint around them and be willing to give up some of our precious time to serve them.

There is another aspect to this learning to serve. In talking with recruiting agents and possible employers, I am often asked what I want to achieve. This is difficult because what I would really like to do is continue with my teaching and research but that isn't always possible. If I say that is what I would prefer to do then work in industry isn't a possibility. Since my research is in computing education, even lecturing and research positions in many computer science departments are not open to me.

In the end, my personal goals have to be subordinated to those of the organisation that I work for. I come as a servant seeking to offer what I can and influence what I can with the skills and knowledge that I have gained over a number of years.

But it isn't easy being the servant or having the servant attitude. There is also a need to recognise who we really serve. There are times when we need to challenge those that we work for and the systems that we work under but in general, the key attitude has to be one of service and accomplishing what is required of us. Sometimes, we have to serve in order to gain the right to have a voice.


Dörner, D. (1997). The logic of failure : recognizing and avoiding error in complex situations. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Gick, M. L., & McGarry, S. J. (1992). Learning from mistakes: Inducing analogous solution failures to a source problem produces later successes in analogical transfer. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 18.

Ginat, D. (2003). The greedy trap and learning from mistakes, Proceedings of the 34th technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 11-15). Reno Nevada: ACM.

Marton, F., & Tsui, A. B. M. (Eds.). (2003). Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah, NJ; London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Schank, R. C. (1997). Virtual learning: A revolutionary approach to building a highly skilled workforce. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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