In the first day of September children usually go to school after the summer vacation. Many children use the summer vacation to learn on their own, things that have very little to do with their school subjects. Some children learn music or read books, while others swim or shoot hoops. When the vacation is over, all the children learn come back together to learn math, English, history and other subjects. One of the ways to learn better is a collaborative or goup learning, especially in pairs. For more information, you are welcome to read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Reward and punishment
The school serves several contradicting roles. This is an institution designed to teach all children the same information that is designated as useful by the society. At the same time, it claims to develop the child and promote the child’s individuality. The tools used by the schools are very simple. Children are given tasks and their performance is evaluated and graded. Good students often get some perks, like interesting lectures and activities by groups promoting outstanding academic achievements. Bad students get negative attention, like detention, meeting with the principal, and occasionally some help from the better students or designated teachers. The same child can be good and bad with the same teacher and subject. My middle son answers all the teachers can ask in math, yet he messes up the classroom and cannot sit straight because the teacher genuinely bores him. Unfortunately, the teacher is pretty much clueless and alternates between punishment and reward. This does not serve the child’s needs. And this is not a unique situation.
Punishment and reward are two sides of the same coin and serve only to control children to meet adult needs. Even worse, punishment and reward deprive children of the opportunity to take risks, develop creativity, and self-regulate.
Unlike the school, where the teacher needs to handle too many children, at home we can pursue the same goals in a different way. When myself or Anna do homework with our children we do not define rewards and punishments and do not do grades. I will not tell you what Anna does, but I will share my approach. I ask the child why is he learning what he needs to learn, and we generate follow-up questions until the goals get clear. Then we try to come up with several alternatives to reach the goals. Typically, the schoolbooks cover at least one of the alternatives. Then we discuss what is the best way to solve the task, and then I leave the child to implement. Now, this is not something that we do very often, but each time we do it the teachers are amazed by the progress the child made.
We use the same approach to deal with the discipline problems. Once the child understands why a certain behavior will not only help the teacher but also allow more productive learning environment, there is the willingness to cooperate. And once we define a plan with measurable milestones, it is easy to see the progress.
Children have their own priorities
As parents, we are often amazed by the risks our children take. It seems like their behavior is erratic. Yet for the children themselves their behavior is perfectly reasonable, simply guided by different priorities.
In children, the areas responsible for self-discipline and long-term planning, such as prefrontal cortex are still just developing. Yet the areas responsible for rewards are very active, which generates impulsive behavior. Children will often outperform the adults as long as they see a reward in front of them. But what happens if a distraction presents its own reward? The children are easily distracted by rewarding distractions, and often choose the easy reward rather than the long-term goals. The goals are also different. Gaining peer acceptance or a reward may outweigh the value adults place on delaying reward for a long-term nonsocial goal, such as financial stability.
Childhood is also the time to take chances and explore. Most mammals use their childhood period to try different things under the supervision of their parents. The presence of the parents provides the safety net which is not available for the grownups. Human children are not that different from the animal cubs when we consider the risktaking. Not being a part of the social group for an animal may be much more dangerous than even a chance of physical injury.
It is not surprising, that collaboration of students, especially young students, is a very effective motivator and learning tool.
Working in pairs
There has been a significant research on various forms of group learning. One of the most successful forms of group learning is a think pairs system. I quote:
During a think-pair-share (TPS) activity, the instructor presents a prompt to the class and asks students to think about how they would respond. The students are then paired and asked to share their ideas with their partner before coming together as a class. Each pair then shares their thoughts with the rest of the class. TPS has some seemingly important benefits: the same students are not always responding to instructor prompts, talking to a partner one-on-one can ease students’ nerves before talking in front of a group, and all students are required to think about the prompt. Studies have found that TPS increases science students’ critical thinking skills and achievement test scores… During the TPS activity, the “pair” and “share” provide students an opportunity to learn through observing their peers, which could increase students’ self-efficacy… The working memory has a limited capacity and not all information can be attended to at once. In addition, it takes time and practice to move information to long-term memory. TPS offers students plenty of practice: by themselves, with a partner, and with the class.
As a parent or a student, it is quite easy to generate the think pairs relationships with other students and enjoy the benefits of the system, even when instructors do not prompt such a cooperation.
Learning to share
One of the main challenges in collaborative work is sharing the resources and the credits. Learning to share is often considered a mandatory skill in social education of a child. As social beings, we seem to be born with a predisposition to share, yet the parents need to support this predisposition.
Quite often parents and instructors tend to push children too hard. When a child is required to give up the control of his beloved toy or is labeled as selfish, it generates resentment and may lead to negative results. It is much easier to use the natural drive to share when the child is tired of using the same toy or interested in a barter deal. The same idea works with grown-ups and their pet projects. Sometimes, before a toy can be shared it should be put in a storage for some time to make the separation easier.
One of the tools that make sharing easy is a rulebook. If the children define when the toy should be passed between them and what each child is entitled to do with the toy, the children will be more willing to wait for their turn to play. It helps to limit the time the toy is in possession of each peer.
While working with other people can generate conflicts, the more experience we have in teamwork and friendship the more likely we will be preventing the conflicts.
Empathy has a huge role in conflict prevention. When people listen to the needs of other people and understand that their needs are clear to others and respected by them, there is much less place for conflict.
Happiness, fear, anger, and sadness are probably the simplest emotions to express. Once we learn to express them, we may start learning to express finer emotions like frustration, fascination or scepticism.
Some level of assertiveness is required to voice our own needs, and this is also an acquired skill.
Researchers have found that problem-solving strategies are 13 times more effective in de-escalating conflicts than aggressive, retaliatory, or emotionally reactive responses.
It is easy to mislabel physical discomfort as a cognitive resentment. We all have a lot of bacteria in our guts, and occasionally we do not feel too well. Sometimes the gut feeling is associated with subconscious stress levels, but it can also be entirely physical. Healthy diet and sleep may reduce the undesired effects. What adults describe as a gut feeling or bad intuition, children can describe “boring” or “being tired”.
In a similar way, it may be hard to define where “proof” stops being a proof. In a debate, quite often, the word proof is an evidence of some sort of domination. When a group dominates and individuum, the group opinion is often accepted as proven and in consensus. These socially proven ideas are rarely checked for statistical evidence, logical consistency, and numerical accuracy.
When we work in a group, we quite often need to voice counterintuitive opinions, simply to make sure that our assumptions are valid.
One of the things we can do by ourselves, with a child or as a thinking pair is to get outdoors. Working outdoors usually result in higher general satisfaction. Specifically, the three aspects that are better satisfied: competence, autonomy, and connection with the peers. Possibly the higher level of achievement can be contributed to the reduction of the stress levels. People who work outdoors experience a high-stress spike during the morning hours, but the stress is reduced soon after. Indoors the stress often remains high all day long. This is not very good for the person.
It is a good idea to go outdoors before the lunch. A short walk can reduce the stress levels and is good for the physical well-being in general. Another good time for a walk outdoors is earlier in the evening. As we drive from one work to another, be it in a workplace or at home, we quite often get even more stressed by the driving experience. All this stress builds up and it’s contribution to our wellbeing and learning capacity is probably not very good.
Grownups are children too
Each of us has an inner parent and an inner child. When we learn, it makes sense not only being adults, but also addressing ourselves and others as parents and as children. An interesting project is not very different from a shiny toy. The tasks we need to solve, are not very different from a homework. The skills we learn as children help us as grown-ups. The skills we have as grown-ups help our children.