Differing learning speeds

The word I hate most used by pupils in the classroom is ‘can’t’. I can’t do this, I can’t do that. What do you mean you can’t do it? Well, you can’t – yet. Carol Dweck believes that some pupils suffer from fixed mindset but how does a child’s mind become fixed? Surely they are not born with a fixed mindset? The more likely cause is their school experience. I once had a pupil say to me “what’s the point if you are not any good?”  Any good? Why? What is it that you are not good at? “I can’t pass tests so I must be dumb”. Well, I disagree.

It appears to me that some pupils are unaware that learning is not a set process but a lifelong action. That is why the word ‘yet’ is a powerful equaliser to the word ‘can’t’. A test may be static in time but, regardless of the outcome, does not mean you stop learning or trying. I always say to pupils that the process of learning is similar to how computers operate. That each of our brains are like a supercomputer but depending on the file size or software support our download speed can be different.

I know that when it comes to history my download speed is pretty fast – I have a wifi connection. I have a real passion for it which helps the download speed. Engagement helps in finding a clear signal to transfer information. However, there are other things that I find more difficult to find a good connection – like learning Chinese. A few years ago I set up a partnership with a high school in China that included a number of visits to China with pupils and staff. I felt that it was important that I should learn some Chinese before my first visit. So, I signed up for a programme with a colleague who teaches languages to start learning Chinese. After completing the programme I was confident with a handful of words, numbers and phrases, however, my colleague was pretty much fluent. He went on taking an advance course and within a year was speaking and writing Chinese. I, on the other hand, was not. I struggle with saying hello – nin hao. See, he had a faster download speed than me. My colleague was processing information on a clear wifi  connection, whereas, I was linked via dial up.

My pupils never know what dial up is so I explain it’s like watching paint dry. It is slow, very slow – I think they call this a G signal. Does it mean I am dumb because I was unable to learn Chinese as quick as my peer? Am I unintelligent because I struggle to pronounce nin hao correctly? I don’t think so, I just have not learnt how to speak Chinese yet. My learning speed is slower in languages than others. Therefore, to improve the quality of my learning speed I may need additional support which could include hiring a personal tutor or moving to China. In either case I can learn Chinese, I just haven’t yet.

That is why I believe that we all have different learning speeds and with effort, time and support we can improve the quality of our signal and download knowledge and skills faster. It’s about changing pupils’ perception of learning from a fixed moment in time defined by a test to understanding that it is continuous without limitations. Newton’s first law of motion says that an object will remain in motion until stopped by an external force. We cannot let schools be the friction that slows learning, instead they should be the force that motivates pupils from resting.

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