This is the second post in a series by our founder, Nancy Rowe. Read the first post.
Christopher was not a behavior problem, but he was refusing to do his work. He usually earned Bs or Cs in his 3rd grade class and his teacher had no sense of why he was no longer interested in school. What was the cause of his apathy, and more urgently, how can we motivate and engage a student like Christopher?
After watching a silent cartoon of animals disagreeing on a narrow bridge, Christopher could describe what happened first, next, then, and so on but did not make connections about why the animals were disagreeing, what was the cause behind their feelings and behavior, or how they solved the problem.
After completing more activities like these, it became clear that Christopher had become used to watching things happen in the world without a sense of wonder or why. He was not looking for cause-and-effect, he did not have a predictive sense of how the world works.
Cause and Effect
As very young children experience the world around themselves, they naturally develop an understanding of cause-and-effect. Infants feel the hard floor when they let go at ‘tummy time.’ Toddlers famously begin to ask “why?” about almost anything they see. Around age 4, these curious toddlers are using the answers make connections and predictions about behavior of people and objects in their world.
When this curiosity is not encouraged or otherwise not naturally happening, as is often the case in our modern world, this developmental window may be missed.
Without a worldview of cause-and-effect, students like Christopher become struggling learners. They do not learn to make predictions. They often do not know what they need to do to make something happen. Nor can they be verbally directed, they often need to be shown or to practice trial-and-error first.
For example, Christopher was given a pen-and-paper math exercise containing empty boxes in rows. He was told to:
- listen to a number read out loud
- write the number that would come next
- skip to the next box if a number is missed
After the first few numbers were read out loud, Christopher began to fall behind. He did not skip the missed numbers, so he continually missed the next numbers and much of his paper remained blank.
Struggling learners like Christopher will be distracted by the significant effort they must make to stay focused on learning while trying to write letters or numbers, read and decode words, or follow a story line.
As a result of struggling without success, struggling learners lack a vision of success. These students don’t predict that hard work will be rewarded and they lose motivation.
On the other hand, students who master basic academic skills in handwriting, reading decoding, and math-fact retrieval use them for higher-order thinking. These independent learners bring sustained and self-directed attention to problem-solving because they predict that their efforts will be successful.
So, how do we turn our students into independent learners?
The secret is WHY. It’s never too late to begin to ask your child “why is this…?” or “what could happen if…?” Most children are naturally curious, give your children real life experiences and let them explore cause-and-effect.
If your child seems uninterested like Christopher, bring the curiosity to him: Instead of telling your child to wear his coat, ask him what is the weather? Instead of telling your child to slow down, ask him what could happen if goes too fast? When you show your child a world with possibilities, he will learn to look for clues, make predictions, problem solve, and create a vision of success.