Kids Who Don’t Learn to Fail, Fail to Learn

MH900442459One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to watch your child struggle with a new task. Yet, without affording our children the experience of the challenge, they lose out on the expression of joy and self-esteem that is embodied as a result of their personal accomplishments. To illustrate, we are all familiar with the experience of learning to ride a bicycle. Think back to the effort it took as a child to learn to balance your bike, and all of the different ways you went about it. Learning I suppose, none of us have forgotten. Similarly, as much as we try to prepare our kids for the task, in the end they learn to ride bikes through failed attempts and falling down.

So how do we transfer this long-term memory retention of learning to ride a bike to a child’s education? In response, I’d like to introduce the work of Drs. Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, investigators at the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab who have spent their whole careers studying how we learn and forget. Interestingly, according to the lab’s many years of research, we learn better from our own errors than from being given the answer.

The steps to becoming better learners are fairly easy to implement and can work for both children and adults. Here are three keys to encouraging retention and to helping your kids become life-long learners.

1. Encourage Your Kids to Get Out of Their Comfort Zone

Riding a bike on level ground is just the beginning of our cycling skill set. The real thrill comes when we take that first ride down the hill. Riding a bike uphill is not as much fun but it is a necessary element of the former. Regardless that we all know good things come from hard work somehow, if given the opportunity, our default is to avoid it. Helping your kids to learn to step out of their comfort zone and understand that not getting the right answer the first time around doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. Conversely, it means they are learning h0w to think.

2. Put Kids to the Test

Tests are not just techniques to assess what we know. Testing creates a sense of difficulty and even though your child may not notice initially, the results are more memorable. The concept behind testing is that the harder it is to remember the harder it is to forget. This can be as simple as trying to answer study questions at the end of a chapter before reading the material, studying the material and then writing what you remember for a few minutes, or after reading about a subject creating questions around the material. Testing oneself is more time consuming  and effortful than reading but if you want to retain information it is the best way to remember, because failing to get an answer right turns out to be a great way to learn.

3. Give Kids Space and a New Place

One of the most significant research findings on memory is that spacing time between study sessions has been shown to produce good long-term retention. By encouraging your child to take time between study periods, the transfer of knowledge can be enhanced which can provide a foundation for subsequent learning. In addition, if your child separates study topics that relate to each other instead of going over the same material, they will also increase material retention. It would seem practical to set up a study area for our children but studying under predictable contexts can be misleading. Although children may relate to material easily within a familiar context, studies suggest that recall is increased when the same material is studied in two different rooms.

The confidence a child gains by using these methods is much more reliable than those of familiarity. So go ahead, test these ideas on your own. By doing so, you will be teaching your child how to learn for the long-term and will help them to find a sense of memory balance in our ever changing world; lessons that will stay with them throughout their lives!

*Special thanks to UCLA Doctoral Candidate Veronica Yan for her contribution to this article.

© 2013 Cathi Curen, Holistic Children Radio


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