Tuesday, June 05, 2007
I went walking with my boys today. Walking used to be a simple procedure. You lean forward, catch yourself with your right leg (or your left, it doesn't matter to begin with), lean forward again, catch yourself with your other leg, and repeat. I've been doing it for 33 years now, I’m somewhat of an expert.
But walking with boys is different. There are boys who run ahead of me, boys who walk next to me, and boys who walk behind. What happens is that I walk at a normal pace, then I have to stop and wait, then I have to walk slower, then I have to yell ahead of me at somebody to slow down. They say you burn about 200 calories walking for an hour. I burn 600 easily, on a good day.
I'm not complaining about taking walks with my boys, but today I noticed something. There are three zones that my boys end up in. The first zone is roughly even with me, or anywhere ahead. The second zone is behind me, maybe 10-15 yards. The third zone is behind me and longer than 15 yards.
In the first zone the kids usually lollygag. They are ahead of me, or at least close to me, so they stop to examine a bug, pick up a particularly strange rock, or try to scare a bird into flight. Since they are lollygagging, they invariable slow down and end up in zone two.
Zone two is usually where the boy realizes that he is behind. He will often call out to me, asking me to wait up. I yell OK, and keep walking. They jog a bit, and soon are back into zone one.
However, sometimes they are so enthralled with the bug, rock, or bird that they fall completely out of zone two and end up in zone three. Now my older boys can get out of zone three without a problem, but my 5 and 3 year old can't. What happens is that they yell at me to stop. When I don't (I know, bad Dad), they look at the distance (over 15 yards), and give up hope. They fall down to the ground and assume what I call the Charlie Brown position (kneeling down on the pavement, screaming, and often striking the ground with a fist). At this point I have to stop because neighbors are peeking out of their houses. I walk back so that the child is in zone two, speak a few encouraging words, and they once again catch up.
So, what does this have to do with anything? Well, it doesn't have to have to do with anything, but I can't help but compare it to learning. Because, well...that is all I deal with all day--at work and at home.
Whenever a person sits down to learn something, they are in one of three zones. They are either all caught up, or maybe ahead. They are behind just a little, or they are completely lost. In zone one it's quite easy to lollygag. I understand what the prof. is saying, I can sleep, just a little. I don't need to read the chapter. Ultimately that leads you to zone two where you realize you don't quite understand. You need to focus, study, or pay attention so that you don't fall into zone three. You’re not confused or lost, you’re catching up. You’re learning. Zone three, of course, is a zone of panic. You realize you're clueless, you need some serious help, and you don't understand anything of what is being said. This is a bad zone to be in.
When I'm teaching my boys, I can tell which zone they are in. If they're in zone one, I pick up the pace. Chop, chop, let’s make it harder. I purposefully move ahead until they are in that sweet spot, zone two. Here they have to pay attention. They are not frustrated, they are not bored, they are learning. It is incredibly hard to keep a person in this zone. Good video games can do it, but it's hard to design instruction that keeps a person in zone two for an extended period of time.
It becomes even harder when you add a second, third, or maybe 25 other learners to the mix. Then you have kids in all sorts of zones. Do you push those in zone one? Do you slow down for the people yelling in zone three? Personally if I was in that situation I'd just curl up into the fetal position. I don't think it can be done, at least not very well. You can't manage kids in all zones. They will always be in different zones, despite our best hopes that none of them are left behind.
May I conclude with yet another rant about copyright law. If I create a program, write a text, or prepare a lesson, ultimately it has to be catered to a zone. This program is for 4th graders, who are struggling at math (zone 3). But copyright law locks that content down. I can't modify it and use it for those in zone 1 or 2. I can't adapt it to 3rd graders, or make it more challenging for 5th graders. It’s tied down. It’s set in stone.
There are now thousands of 'things' out there that are licensed under a creative commons or GPL license. Professors and educators should be using, reusing, mashing, and remixing these items. The more we can proliferate this material, and make it adaptable to a wider audience (in all zones), the better off the learners will be.
The key is to realize that automation is not going to be the silver bullet. You can never rely on a program to adapt to a child. Technology will always be an important part of the equation, but at the end of the day you need a teacher, you need a learner, and you need useful content.