Principles of Learning
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Success, failure and self-concept

For as he thinks in his heart, so he is . . .  – Proverbs 23: 7

Learning is not a solely intellectual activity. People learn in a great many ways as they acquire knowledge – about the world, about others, and about themselves. Often these lessons are not learned consciously or deliberately – but that does not make them any less powerful. The same is true when we do not learn something: we receive powerful messages about ourselves, the chief of which is that we cannot learn.

How many times have you heard a child (or yourself) say ‘This is stupid,’ when something proves difficult to understand? How often the underlying implication is: ‘I’m stupid’.

Fail stamp

But few things have greater potential to affect learning – and how we see ourselves as learners – than reading. The cognitive and affective effects of reading are cumulative and pervasive. Stanovich, in his classic article on Matthew effects in reading (1986), puts it this way:

 Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or, to put it more simply – and more sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, “Reading affects everything you do.” (Morris, 1984, p. 19).

 Stanovich goes on:

Perfetti (1985) has explicated these proliferating Matthew effects and the related motivational problems using the framework of his verbal efficiency theory:

“The low-achieving reader starts out behind in terms of some of the linguistic knowledge on which this verbal processing system gets built. He falls farther behind as his reading experiences fail to build the rich and redundant network that the high-achieving reader has. By the time a fifth-grade student is targeted for remediation, the inefficiency (and ineffectiveness) of his (or her) verbal coding system has had a significant history. To expect this to be remedied by a few lessons in decoding practice is like expecting a baseball player of mediocre talent to suddenly become a good hitter following a few days of batting practice. This problem, the need for extended practice, is unfortunately coupled with the problem of motivation.”

What both Stanovich and Perfetti point out is that reading failure creates an accumulation of learning problems, both in the cognitive domain and in the affective domain. In other words, students have learned powerful messages about themselves that cannot be undone in a short time. The only likely way to undo these messages is to repeatedly prove them wrong – in other words, to achieve consistent success.

3 Rosette Ribbons

This requires two essential components to an effective reading intervention – especially one designed for secondary students who carry with them a long history of failure. The first is a carefully calibrated programme that ensures that steps are small, achievable but challenging, and result in daily success. The second is skilled behavior management to coax students out of patterns of avoidance, escape and confrontation into productive learning habits. Both of these elements are complex and delicate; effective programme design is time-consuming.

But it is the students who get the pay-off! When the negative messages are reversed, the cycle begins to flow the other way. As students succeed in reading lessons, they are more content, more motivated, and more willing to take risks in their other subjects. Because Rhianna can read better, she enjoys reading more; because she enjoys reading more, she reads more, and so she learns more. Because she learns more, she is more successful. Because she is more successful, she feels better about herself, and about school. Because she feels better about school, she participates more. Because she participates more, she learns more. She also has more positive interactions with teachers, and so she begins to trust their advice. Because she trusts their advice, she learns more. And so it continues.

2 Climbers Reaching

One of the most consistent aspects of feedback we receive from the classroom is that students who have progressed in their reading are better behaved, happier and more confident. Every Thinking Reading graduate is asked for a comment when they exit the programme because they have caught up on their reading (see here for examples). Nearly all of them use the phrase “more confident.”

Some might respond: “Well, it’s not rocket science, is it?” Perhaps the principle of reading success leading to better outcomes across the curriculum seems self-evident. But in many schools reading help is seen as an obstacle to progress, not the way to turn around a disaffected student. And as for the actual process of achieving such an outcome – the how-to? Now that is rocket science.

Scientists with missile

For further reading on affective environment and on labelling

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You may also be interested in:

Can’t Read, Won’t Read

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

A Question of Progress


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