Friday, August 24, 2012

Flashcards Don't Work: The Value of Learning HOW to Learn, for Preschoolers and Beyond

As I've mentioned previously, I started a new job this week teaching developmental writing at a community college. The students have been--to a surprisingly uniform degree--attentive, energetic, and incredibly ready to learn. They've participated in the in-class discussions and come to class prepared. They are a joy to teach.

There is, though, one area that's causing some anxiety.

Our computers
Hint: It looks like this. 
Maybe it's because the school I previously taught in (private, expensive) was a place where most (though certainly not all) of the students had their own computers. Maybe it's because the place I previously taught had a very strict copy policy that had me very motivated to provide resources electronically. Maybe it's because I type a lot faster than I handwrite and prefer to grade online. 

Whatever the underlying causes, a lot of my assignments are turned in online. This is very clearly causing some of my students a lot of anxiety. Several of these students are older. Some are coming back to school after a long break, and the last time they were here, computers weren't common. Some have simply never been in an environment where a computer was readily accessible. Some have had access to computers in school, but have never used them enough to be comfortable with them. 

All of them are expressing, to various degrees, their desire to just turn in assignments in class. 

Some of them were so stressed that I momentarily thought about changing my policies. I hate seeing that look of panic on my students' faces. I don't want to stress them out. I want to instill confidence. I want to set them up for success. 

But I thought back to the very first thing I had them do in class: tell me their reasons for enrolling in school. They want to be nurses and entrepreneurs. They want to transfer to four year colleges. They want to write their family histories. They want to be successful members of various discourse communities. 

And they're going to have to be able to use computers. 

I showed them this video (ironically outdated, but its successors haven't been as polished, in my opinion) to help demonstrate why I have those requirements in place:

This video demonstrates not only how much technology impacts our exponentially growing society, but also that you can't just master any particular skill set and expect it to take you where you want to go in your career. Our world is changing fast. Learning how to learn is more important than memorizing any particular set of facts. 

So I tell my students that I challenge them to learn new technologies because facing those anxieties and getting familiar with new situations is something that they're going to have to do again and again over the course of their lives. If they become comfortable with the unknown, they'll be better prepared for what's to come. 

Which is interesting because I teach adults (many of them in their 50s and 60s) and yet today I read this article about preschoolers and thought about a lot of these same things. 

In Tara Parker-Pope's NYT piece about what skills make toddlers most successful later in life, she explains that having their children memorize flashcards can make parents feel like they're being effective parents, but that's really not the best thing to do:
“We tend to equate learning with the content of learning, with what information children have, rather than the how of learning,” says Ellen Galinsky, a child-development researcher and author of “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” “But focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success.”
So what's a better way to help ensure your kids are getting the skills they need to succeed? Singing songs, playing games, and dancing. Seriously. Games like Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light teach a kid to follow directions, concentrate, and practice self-control. As Parker-Pope notes:
An Oregon State study reported on 430 children who were followed from preschool until age 25. The study, published online earlier this month in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, looked at several factors, including early reading and math skills, along with other cognitive skills, to see which were ultimately most influential in college success. It turns out that a child’s ability at age 4 to pay attention and complete a task, the very skills learned in game play, were the greatest predictors of whether he or she finished college by age 25.
So I'm going to keep challenging my students to take on the technology tasks that intimidate them, and I'm going to encourage my daughter to play because it seems like hands-on tasks that teach you translatable skills are probably the best investments for the future, at any age. 

Photo: aranarth


  1. so, so true. i was just telling my mother - 70 years old - that it's about time she become more proficient on the computer. she is so resistant to change and learning new things, it's such a hindrance! also, interesting how you connected this to pre-schoolers. both of my kids have special needs academically, and i've learned so much in the course of helping them. all the academic pressure in preschool is really harmful to kids. they need to develop gross motor skills (run on the play ground and bump into something)before they move to higher level intellectual work like reading. and they need to learn to think and problem solve (which as you say, they do through play). great post.

    1. Thanks! It makes me sad when people who missed out on technology advances just give up on ever learning. I imagine that it's really scary to look in on all of that new stuff (I get intimidated by not understanding how tumblr works, and I'm pretty tech savvy!). But they're closing so many doors.