Using Technology for the Sweet Spot of Learning

Source: KQED Mindshift, Sep 2013

The first thing to know is that everyone likes to learn.

“There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking,” writes Willingham.

But it’s not fun to try to learn something that’s too hard.

“Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable,” writes Willingham. “In fact, it’s frustrating.”

Working on a problem that’s too easy is no fun either. It’s boring.

What people enjoy is working on problems that are the right level of difficulty.

“The problem must be easy enough to be solved yet difficult enough to take some mental effort,” Willingham writes. He calls this the “sweet spot” of difficulty.

The problem with most schools is that kids don’t get to their sweet spot enough. There are 20 other kids in the class – or maybe 30 or even 40. Everyone is in a slightly different place. Some kids get it and want to move ahead. Others are struggling to catch up and need more explanation. It’s a challenge for teachers. The best teachers try to meet each student’s needs. But a lot of teachers end up teaching to the middle. That leaves a lot of kids bored, or frustrated, or both.

… a new school with a different approach to learning. The school is called Carpe Diem-Meridian. It’s a public charter school that opened in Indianapolis in August 2012. Students spend part of the day in traditional classes, and part of the day learning on computer. There’s an online curriculum; students move through each course at their own pace. When they demonstrate they’ve mastered the material, they move on to the next level.

Walker is the English teacher at Carpe Diem. She says because students spend part of their day learning on computer, she has more time to work with students individually. And she thinks when students work on their own at their own pace they actually have a better understanding of what they need help with. “These are the things I’ve mastered. I don’t need help with that,” they’ll say to her. “These are the things that I can read and understand on my own. [And] these are the things that I really need help with.” That’s what she focuses on with them. She says it’s a more efficient way to teach — and to learn.

research shows the emotional connection between a student and a teacher is enormously important when it comes to how much a student learns. He doesn’t think students of any age should spend all of their time learning on a computer. The balance between time spent with computers and time spent with other human beings is important for schools to consider as they think about bringing technology into classrooms. Willingham says this may be the most important question — even more important than how good the software is. Technology is only as good as the way it gets used.


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