Two 10-year-old girls work side-by-side in their third grade classroom. Their task is a "self-paced" arithmetic book that teaches new concepts and practices old ones. They are well-behaved and serious. Their experiences, however, are remarkably different.
Judith works quickly, choosing familiar arithmetic problems. She frequently looks up and scans her classroom, watching and smiling at several classmates.
Seated at the round table, Rebecca works slowly and seems more relaxed. She spends time studying before writing. She looks up only once during the 20-minute "math moment." Although Judith and four other friends are seated at her table, she seems not to notice them.
Judith and Rebecca have different experiences. Their approaches to the arithmetic problems reveal their important differences.
Rebecca is a "challenge-involved" child. She seeks out the problems that are new _ unfamiliar concepts that require her to struggle with new ideas and methods. She seems almost lost in the challenges of the new concepts. Friendly and popular with the other children, this youngster only once briefly looks for a hint at how to solve a new problem. Rebecca smiles to herself when she masters a problem. She is task-oriented and gains a lot of pleasure from mastery.
Judith is a "self-oriented" learner. She chooses problems that she knows she can do, then looks up smiling when she records an answer. She gets angry and blames herself when she has to struggle with a problem. For Judith, struggling with the unfamiliar and being unable to record an answer means losing status. She feels ashamed when she is unable to share another "success" with her classmates. Judith, like other self-oriented learners, doesn't recognize that effort makes a difference. Ability is perceived as comparison with other children.
Self-oriented learners primarily compete; they work to avoid shame. Challenge-oriented learners like Rebecca seem not to be self-conscious. As they lose themselves in their tasks they show little regard for what education might get them. They simply enjoy learning. They approach education as if it were a series of jigsaw puzzles.
All very young children begin as challenge-oriented learners. They understand smartness as being the same as effort. Toddlers are task-directed and have little concern for competition. They are delighted to try harder and then to announce, "I did it!"
By 10-years-old, however, most children have shifted toward competition. Some youngsters focus on competitive sports, others preoccupy themselves with other comparing activities.
Early family and teacher messages probably determine whether learning will be used to define social status and competitive winning or whether learning will just be learning. The early messages determine whether a child will become a task-oriented or self-oriented learner.
Families that stress that education prepares for high status occupations or for wealth typically produce self-oriented learners. Learning takes on special meanings. One learns to gain social status. One achieves to compete and avoid shame. Workbook achievement defines the young self.
Young children have fragile, undeveloped confidence. It is easy, albeit destructive, to motivate them by comparing them with other children. Many adults unknowingly link shame with learning. A mother, struggling to encourage her son to do his first homework, explained that, "The other kids do the problems. You have to do it, they'll know." A self-orientation to learning is under way.
The cost of this way of motivating and of learning can be enormous. Learning can become forever uncomfortable and frightening.
Parents can help produce a challenge or task-orientation to learning by saying, "It's great to see that you're interested in this."
Parents themselves can get interested in the learning task with a young child. A parent's interest can be a powerful message. It can be helpful to voice out loud, "It's hard to do this because it's different and new. But it can be fun to figure it out. The way you learn is really fun."
Sometimes it's helpful while looking at a workbook or narrative together to say, "I didn't expect it to go that way. Did you think the president lived that way when he was a child?," or, "If you wrote this arithmetic book, would you teach children to do the problem this way?"
Children with learning difficulties typically have a better chance of overcoming their problems when they are task-oriented rather than self-oriented.
Encouragement, by emphasizing "you're making good progress," and "figuring this out is like a puzzle . . . it's fun," can help learning not to take on unspoken, anxious meanings. Task-oriented learners can have a better time of it at school.
Dr. Schwarzbeck is a consultant to families, schools and hospitals in Seattle. He is a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Medicine and at the Washington, D.C., School of Psychiatry.