Efficient Learning Often Involves Struggle Before Aha!

Baby crawling
Photo: @twinshenanigans via Twenty20

Remember when your child couldn’t yet crawl but wanted to get from one point to another? They were determined to get to the box of Goldfish or play with a toy across the room. Little by little, they figured out how to scoot their bodies to get where they wanted to go. They were highly motivated to learn!

Efficient learning starts with desire

Efficient learning usually starts with desire. A child wants to figure out how to fix their bike. An adult wants a new job, and the attendant raise. A grandparent wants to communicate with their grandchild using a smartphone.

Then comes the struggle. The child tries to fix the bike but doesn’t really know how. The adult wants the new job but doesn’t really understand the skills needed or the office politics involved. The grandparent tries to use Facetime to call their grandchild, but nothing works.

Powerful learning experiences often involve struggle because, when we experience for ourselves that we can’t do something we want to do, we are more likely to want help. If Uncle Joe loves bikes and is excited to teach his nephew Robert about them, well, that might not work out so well. But if Robert loves bikes and has been struggling to fix his, now the stage is set for Robert to value and benefit from Uncle Joe’s knowledge and skills.

“I want to do it all by myself!”

When your child says, “I want to do it all by myself” and you know your child is not ready to do that thing — say, tying a shoe by themselves — by all means, let them try! They are going through the struggle that will show them that they have something to learn.

The same principle applies to learning calculus. A teacher who knows his students know how to find the area of a rectilinear shape might challenge them to find the area under a curve. The students struggle. They discover they don’t have the tools in their tool kit to meet the challenge. But they will begin to glimpse the need for some of the tools of calculus. They’re more likely to be motivated to learn more.

Now what? What if our calculus teacher just leaves the students hanging — doesn’t teach them anything new? Are the students likely to figure out calculus on their own?

Not so much.

After some struggle, it’s time for some help

Now it’s time for a more experienced person — a parent or a teacher — to demonstrate something or give some hints. For the baby who is just learning to crawl, this might mean the parent helps the baby get themselves up on all fours. For the child learning to fix their bike, this might mean introducing them to a pedal wrench. For the child learning calculus, this might mean introducing Archimedes’s method of finding the area of a parabolic segment.

Help is critical to efficient learning. This is a point that some people don’t get, because they misunderstand “progressive” or “constructivist” theories of learning. Some people believe these theories mean that teachers should rarely tell students anything; students only learn something well if they “construct” the new knowledge for themselves.

It’s true that learning requires people to assimilate, process, and make sense of new information themselves. Teachers can’t do that — only learners can. But they can usually do it faster and more successfully if they get the right kind of help.1

Progress begets more progress

With help, the learner develops a new skill or understanding. “Ohh,” the calculus student might say. “I see how you could get pretty close to figuring out the area under this parabola by dividing it into triangular segments. And maybe I could get the exact answer if I could divide it into lots and lots of triangular segments. Hmmm. How would I do that?”

Now the teacher can show the student how the tools of calculus could help them do exactly that.

The moment when the teacher shows the student and the student says “aha!” is often what we refer to as “learning,” but it’s critical to recognize what enabled that moment to happen: the initial desire and struggle to understand or accomplish something new.

Teachers can talk all they want, but only learners can discover new insights. That’s more likely to happen when teachers and parents create the right conditions and provide the right kind of help.

So as you think about how to help your child grow and learn, consider: What does your child already want to learn? What are they struggling with? How can you give them just the right amount of help, so their struggle will be productive and successful?

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Efficient Learning Often Involves Struggle Before Aha!
  1. National Research Council, How People Learn, p. 11.