281. The Threshold

There’s a place between impossible and too easy where learning happens best. When people find themselves in that place, learning is exciting and enjoyable. Every new bit of skill or knowledge makes the learner want more. People who are lucky enough to spend a lot of time in that place know about the
feeling of success, and are often willing to deal with extra challenge when it happens. They know about the light at the end of the tunnel.
Teachers try to plan lessons that bring children to that place. But several factors can make it difficult. First of all, there’s diversity and class size. A tutor teaching one child can pay attention to every bit of feedback that the child gives. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and language give the teacher plenty of clues about what to do. But one teacher can’t be as aware of all the feedback coming from a class full of children.
Another factor is children’s previous success and failure. If a child knows from experience that difficult work can be done, and that the results are worth the effort, more becomes possible. But if failure has been the name of the game so far, any perceived challenge can feel like an ill omen. So good teachers try to provide lots of experiences wherein success is likely.
Lack of challenge is sometimes a little less of a problem. When children do work they call “too easy,” they can occasionally benefit from it. They may be calling it “too easy” a little prematurely. But a steady diet of lessons that teach what children already know can get children to tune out just as surely as the lessons that go over their heads; children want to be respected for what they know, and they want to move on to what they don’t know.
This is much easier said than done. Teaching would be easier if feedback were consistent and reliable. The best of tests are designed and used to provide that feedback and plan strategies. If a little light bulb flashed or a bell rang every time a child learned, teachers might have some better chances to provide learning experiences (but it could also make the classroom a little too bright or noisy).
But I’m pretty sure that isn’t going to happen. Teachers are going to have to keep estimating where the learning threshold is for each child, planning lessons accordingly, and learning to guess more and more accurately. With luck, that won’t be too challenging. I’m sure it’s not too easy.

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