Friday, September 24, 2010

Productive Frustration: A Key to Learning

In a recent article in the New York Times magazine (19th Sept 2010), 'Online Curiosity Killer', Ben Greenman pondered the different processes used by his 9 year-old son to research the 'Anaconda' (the world's largest snake) for a school assignment. His son was proud of the report and showed it to his father. His Dad read lots of the information then innocently asked a question for which his son did not have the answer, "what is the second largest snake?" His son went off to the next room to the computer and returned with the answer within a short space of time.

A month later Greenman picked up an old encyclopaedia and checked the entry for Anacondas. There was lots of information but not the answer to the question he asked his son a month before. He reflected on the differences in the accessibility of information in the age of the Internet and considered the good and the bad of this new age of lightening fast communication and accessible information.
By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests. Each of my sons passes through phases quickly: one month they’re obsessed with marine life, the next with world flags. This is not so different from how I was (the ’70s was all about robots), but what is different is how much information they can collect, and how quickly they come to feel that they have satisfied their hunger.

Until recently, I have been entirely complicit in the Second-Largest Snake Problem. (By the way, the answer is the reticulated python.) When either of my kids has asked me a question, I have tried to answer or, if I could not, just looked it up. Google and I, as it turns out, know everything. But in recent weeks, I have begun playing dumb, saying that I don’t know and not offering to find out. Sometimes they’ll drop the question immediately, but sometimes they’ll persist, and I’m learning not to give in to the persistence but rather to ensure that the questions stay with them until they arrive at a point when they know nothing for certain except that they have questions they cannot answer so easily.

Making Good Use of Productive Frustration

I liked his idea of 'Productive Frustration'. In fact, I think he put his finger on something that is vital if our children are to become people who hunger to learn. However, I don't think the Internet has any more potential to kill off curiosity than other modes of learning. It matters little if we gain our information from books, the Internet, firsthand experience, listening, viewing or tactile experience. What matters is that we create in our children a desire to learn and to know. A desire to ask why? What if? How come? Who said? How does that work? A sense of frustration that there is something for which they do not have an answer. This sense of 'productive frustration' is surely what has driven some of the great minds throughout history.

Once we have created a desire in our children to inquire of the things in their world we need to kindle their appetite for learning. It seems to me that the Internet is a good tool in the right hands, but it can also be as useless as an old encyclopaedia if used badly. Our children need guidance and support if they are to become committed learners.

Barbara Rogoff suggests in her book 'Apprenticeship in Thinking' that guided participation is critical to children’s learning. She describes this process as the guiding of children and others in the collaborative process of "building bridges" from children's present understanding and skills in order to reach new understandings and skills. This in turn requires "the arranging and structuring of children's participation in activities" in some way. I wrote about this in relation to a firsthand experience with one of my grandchildren a couple of years ago (here). Her thoughts are closely related to Bruner's notions of scaffolding and Vygostsky's work published in 'Mind in Society'.

At times 'guided participation' can be as simple as asking the young learner a question and simply getting out of their way (see my previous post on 'Questioning: A Key Part of Learning'). At other times it might require more.  In my book 'Pathways to Literacy' I use work by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) to discuss the forms of support that we can provide for young learners and suggest that we need to use varied forms of support.
  • We need to be good at recruiting children's interest in the task
  • We should try to help them to simplify the task at times
  • We need to do what is necessary to keep them pursuing the goal
  • We need to point out gaps in knowledge and inconsistencies between what the child has done and what could be achieved
  • We need to help them to control their frustration as they try to solve a problem, but we must never remove this (that's where productive frustration comes in)
  • We need to demonstrate if necessary how they can pursue their goalby demonstrating how it can be done (without quite doing it for them).
If we do give our children these varied forms of support then we will see evidence that we are "filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests".

Other Posts and Resources

Ben Greenman, 'Online Curiosity Killer', New York Times magazine, 19th Sept 2010).

'Guiding Children's Learning' (HERE)

Rogoff, B. (1990). 'Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context', New York: Oxford University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between Learning and Development (pp. 79-91). In Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, (Trans. M. Cole). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.


Sherri said...

This is such a fantastic post! Thank you! I am very excited to follow your blog!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Sherri,

Thanks for your comment. It's great to have you following this blog.