Friday, July 22, 2005


Sometimes it seems like one of the main functions of the field of psychology is to give you a language or framework to perfectly describe something that you kind of already knew in your gut. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

In the car on the way to Confratute, I was talking to my colleagues about my experience with learning to sail on the Pioneer.

My roommate has done various kinds of manual labor throughout her life - construction, working in barns, etc. - and possesses a kind of intuition for learning new manual skills, such as what to do with that rope to make the sail go up. And she isn't often in the way by mistake. I don't have this intuition. I feel like I'm constantly in the way, and it takes me a lot longer to learn a new skill on the boat. We are the opposite when it comes to teaching. When I volunteered on an ed sail a week ago, I realized that I will only have to watch the various workshops once or twice in order to learn how to do them myself. My roommate finds the idea of teaching, even in an informal, outdoor, hands-on setting, rather terrifying. I've developed a certain instinct for it; she has not.

Nevertheless, we both know that if we really want to know or be able to do something, we can learn to do it well. It's just that some things will take longer for us to learn, and will require more embarrassing mistakes, than others.

In my strand on reversing underachievement, the presenter, Del Siegle,* described some research into learning. The researcher found that some people approach learning a new skill with a performance orientation. They want to do well, to appear successful or smart. They are anxious about making mistakes in front of peers or the teacher, and may even avoid trying the new skill if they feel that they will not perform well. Others approach learning a new skill with a mastery orientation. They want to learn the skill well, to eventually become successful. They aren't afraid to mess up if it means getting better in the end. Mastery-oriented learners will try hard tasks if they want to learn how to do them, because they know that through trying, they will learn.

You already knew all of that, didn't you? It's one of those frameworks for thinking about learning that just makes sense. We can all probably identify disciplines in which we are mastery-oriented and disciplines in which we are performance-oriented. I have a mastery orientation towards learning to sail, to teach better, to do yoga, and in most academic subjects. I am performance-oriented about music; you should have seen me a year ago when my then-boyfriend generously tried to teach me to play the guitar - I was a quivering blob of musical inability and got myself out of the situation as quickly as humanly possible!

So back to the research. The researchers surveyed and then divided a group of kids into two groups - one group had a performance orientation towards math, the other a mastery orientation. When given a series of really tough math tasks to do, the performance-oriented kids tended to avoid trying the tasks they thought they couldn't do, while the mastery-oriented kids gave it a shot and struggled with the problems. Who do you think learned?

But this was reversible!

They gave all the kids some biographies of successful people to read. The performance-oriented kids read biographies that had been written to emphasize that these people struggled and even failed on their way to success. The mastery-oriented kids read biographies of the same people, but this time written as though they had just used innate talent to achieve almost instantaneous success.

Guess what? When given math tasks after reading the biographies, the behaviors reversed - the formerly performance-oriented kids showed more of a mastery orientation, trying difficult problems and struggling with them, while the formerly mastery-oriented kids showed more a performance orientation, avoiding problems if they thought they'd fail.

Interesting, and obviously relevant to the classroom.

I think that I was somewhat performance-oriented during high school, but have been growing more and more mastery-oriented since then. I'm taking more risks, trying things that I might have avoided in the past. Sailing is one example; iMovie is another; and robotics is the third!

I did an early morning special topics strand on robotics. I'm not very confident about mechanical stuff and have little background knowledge or vocabulary for it. As a feminist and a teacher, I am sure as heck not going to model timidity around engineering to my students! So, I'm learning how to play. On the first day, I got a motor and tried attaching different stuff to it. "What will happen if..." is a question with no wrong answers (assuming you're not playing with explosives!). I made a pair of legs that would sort of leap up and down. Not very useful, but I got a feel for how it all works. On the second day, I designed a car that I could drive forwards and backwards. I had it working in under 15 minutes! I spent the rest of the hour and a half trying to get it to turn. The teacher told me one solution, but because he told me, I made myself find a different one, one that he said he'd never seen anyone do with Legos. I split the car into a front half and back half, and linked the halves with a sort of turntable. Then I tried to attach the motor to the front half pointing down so that when it was on, the car would turn right, and when it was in reverse the car would turn left. I got stuck because I couldn't find a good way to keep the motor attached - it kept falling off - and as a result, I needed to develop a gear mechanism that would translate motion from the vertical to the horizontal plane. I hoped to solve the problem on the third day, but instead we played with the (completely non-intuitive) program RoboLab, which you can use to write little programs for your Lego creations.

I'm rather proud of myself! Partly for my successes, but more so for my attempts.

*Believe it or not, this guy's last name is pronounced "SIH-glee" - not "SEE-gul"


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