If you had to identify one thing that distinguishes this generation of teens from all those before it, I think it would be their belief in the power of now. They are the generation of instant gratification. If you want to speak to someone, you call them on their mobile device. If you want to see someone, you FaceTime or Skype. If you need a quick pick me up, post on Insty and get a bunch of likes to feed your self esteem. If you’re bored, stream entertainment instantly. If you need the answer to a question…Google it. They know no other way.
How then do we engage kids in long term learning at school? And looking into the future, how do we teach them to put in the consistent effort required to build and sustain a career or a relationship?
In some ways the belief in the power of now will make our kids the most powerful generation ever because their expectations will drive change. However, it also makes them incredibly vulnerable, because not everything works this way. Their lack of patience and their lack of understanding of the concepts of time and consistency will be their undoing.
Just about everything that matters is about consistency. Love. We don’t fall in love with someone when they walk into a room for the first time looking great and sparking energy. That’s impact. We fall in love when they do little things we love, day in and day out. That’s consistency. Health. We don’t get fit by doing a one-week boot camp. We do that for a kick start, it makes an impact. We get fit by exercising a few times a week, week in, week out. That’s consistency. And in education, there are some things that just can’t be addressed in a one-hour lesson. Knowledge is built and skills are practised over time, in many cases years.
Learning happens slowly and consistently. When we were little we did it when we learnt to read. There were steps, from holding a book the right way up, to recognising letters to phonetics, years of practising and finally fluency. It’s not actually that hard to learn to read, but you do have to develop building blocks and practise. It is the willingness to practise that we see disappearing from teenagers’ skill sets.
Some of the areas most affected by teens’ lack of consistency are mathematics, music and languages. In each of these areas there needs to be a mastery of some basic skills that only comes with practise. In mathematics it is in times tables. In languages it is vocabulary and grammar rules, and in music it is technical proficiency. If those areas aren’t addressed there is very little chance of being good enough to make the study enjoyable.
That’s the problem…if it’s not fun, kids wont persist. But if they don’t persist, they will never be good enough for the skill to actually be fun. Take for example, music. It is across cultures, one of the most profoundly important forms of artistic expression, creativity and joy. However, we now have a situation where children don’t have the patience to practise enough to make the sort of sounds that are recognisably music. Consequently, they quit, or swap instruments in the hope of finding something quicker and easier. Eventually they quit altogether.
Paul Kinsella is the Head of Music at Santa Maria College. He says, “I saw a sharp change when screen culture emerged. Very quickly we had an increasing number of girls swapping and changing instruments along with a reduced number remaining until they were skilled enough to be intrinsically rewarded by their own progress.” Paul feels that the idea of sticking to the development of a skill for years is now becoming an increasingly foreign concept.
There is a big push away from homework around the developed world. The research says that homework does not improve learning outcomes at primary level. That might be true of some forms of homework, but we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. What homework does do, is give kids an opportunity to practise.
Chanting your times table may seem old fashioned, but it works. It gives kids the freedom at school to face mathematical challenges. They can rely on the assumed knowledge of tables and focus on problem solving. If they don’t have mastery of tables, it makes everything else so much harder. The same can be said of spelling and reading. Practise is what helps us internalise English language rules and that internalised knowledge will form the building blocks of our future written expression.
So, how can we teach kids to value consistency? How do we teach them that mastery of skills takes time and practise? It takes time to build a skill and then a talent and a career. How do we show them that there are lots of boring moments in a wow life?
You can start some of these from a very young age.
- Model work on long term tasks. I used to be fascinated watching my grandmother crocheting giant rugs, one tiny square at a time. I loved watching my dad training sheep dogs; slowly, slowly, slowly.
- Move away from star charts and towards focusing on an internal sense of pride and achievement. How does it feel inside to have a clean room? Rather than how does it feel to get a star for cleaning your room?
- Less time on screens with their instant dopamine hits and constant sound, movement and action. More time in nature. Nature has its own natural rhythms and flow. It doesn’t speed up for anyone or anything. Kids find their own rhythms start to match those of their environment.
As they get older:
- Teach kids to notice, identify and label their feelings while learning. Normalise frustration, anger, boredom and annoyance as much as joy, pride and satisfaction.
- Games such as Scrabble, chess or jigsaws help to develop a sense of time, practise and strategy.
- Set learning goals that are gradual, realistic and achievable. Ask your child to focus on improving by 5%, not lifting their grade. 5% is achievable and when they get those results they can lift another 5%.
Sometimes parents and teachers just have to insist that kids stick to learning a skill or participating in an activity. As adults we have a sense of the long term and the importance of persistence and consistency. We are responsible for developing that understanding in our kids. They may not like it in the short term, but so what. We are growing committed and intrinsically motivated adults. If that costs the odd temper tantrum, so be it.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here