As adults most of us have had the experience of doing something without really thinking about it. We drive a car, read, talk and complete simple daily tasks like brushing our teeth without having to think through each step. If asked we’d find it quite difficult to think through all the separate component parts of many tasks to explain step by step exactly what we are doing. One step beyond knowing something is becoming fluent in applying that knowledge. Again, if we think about daily tasks there are some that although we know how to do them it might take us a bit longer to get them done. You may know how to drive a car and you are fluent when driving from home to work, if you are asked to drive to a new destination or undertake an unfamiliar manoeuvre, such as backing a trailer you might take a bit longer. You may need to think ahead a bit more about how you are going to perform the task. During the task you may have to think step by step what you are doing.
Children learn to read, write and do arithmetic moving through these stages of being complete novices needing to learn every component of a skill step by step to knowing the skill to becoming fluent in applying skills. What’s useful about a skill becoming automatic is that it leaves our brains free to do something more than just apply the skill in the same way. When children become fluent readers, able to automatically read text, they then begin to learn from what they are reading. When they can write automatically they can begin to create interesting and useful text. When they become automatic in their understanding of number and arithmetic they can start to learn about how to apply this knowledge to develop further understanding of the world using mathematical concepts to help them.
Sometimes children get stuck or take a bit longer to acquire the required level of automaticity compared to their peers. This can be a huge pressure for parents and students. For some thinking about the idea of how this might be playing out in our modern education have a look at this Ted talk from Sir Ken Robinson in which he discusses some of the challenges facing modern education systems. The talk is about 11 minutes long and is very entertaining. It’s worth a look if you haven’t seen it. It was posted in 2010 and in my opinion much of what is happening in education in New Zealand is already reflective of a different way of thinking.
As Sir Ken points out children are going through the school system in batches based on their ages. As any psychologist, parent or educator knows children all develop skills at different ages and stages. We have broad guidelines which help us to understand when we might look for certain skills to develop but the bands in which children develop these skills are wide. If you have a look at the New Zealand Curriculum you will see that children are expected to develop skills across several years in each curriculum level. The skills children are developing in level one of the curriculum level start to be developed in year one, continue through year 2 and year three and tail off in the beginning of year 4.
My first key message to you and your child is that if they are not developing the skills at the same time as their peers they might just need to take a little more time. Developmentally they may not be ready to acquire the skills. Your child is special and unique and as adults we need to remind them and ourselves of this. Take the pressure off the situation by acknowledging that everyone learns at a different pace. I’m not suggesting abandoning the learning process but instead removing the expectation that all children are the same should be expected to go through the same teaching and learning process and come out with the same result. Every child will need an individual approach. Sometimes this is very subtle and sometimes a bit more explicit. Next week I have some suggestions for helping to keep the learning process fun when it ends up taking a bit longer.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.