The Goldilocks Principle

Where learning is neither too hot, nor too cold, but "just right"

This is @edpsychprof's weekly newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and adults) can thrive.

Today brings us to Part Three of a five-part series on principles that I believe are essential to creating a school culture that helps children thrive. I developed these principles to serve as the foundation for the charter school I founded, yet the principles are universal, based in robust theory and research from psychology and education. Today, we discuss the Goldilocks Principle, or creating an environment where students are challenged and have the opportunity to work in the Zone or flow state.

When I first started teaching EdD students, I expected them to be similar to PhD students. I didn’t realize, at first, that most were not in the program to become researchers. Many did not have that kind of background, nor did they have the desire to produce research as a major part of their job description. Rather, they wanted to be scholar-practitioners. Given that they still needed to do research during the program, many needed a lot of support. I didn't realize how much at first, and I was very liberal with giving Fs on papers that didn’t meet my expectations. It took me a few years to realize their failures were my responsibility, and so I began to incorporate a lot more scaffolding, focusing on teaching scholarship and research skills up front. I also invited students to redo their papers until they reached proficiency. This approach worked, and students are less frustrated (and more skilled) now than in my early years of teaching.

The Goldilocks Principle is about providing work that students can do with a little extra help—it's not independent work and it's not frustrating work. Not too hot, not too cold: Just like Goldilocks, kids are seeking a learning challenge that is “just right for them.” For many of my students, the work I assigned was in their the frustration zone, not their challenge zone. Restructuring my classes has helped change that dynamic.

Challenge seems easier to get our heads around than love, the first principle I covered, doesn’t it? Challenge seems so American, so sports-oriented, so rah rah. And yet, challenge in the Vygtoskian sense is a bit more nuanced than it seems. For Vygotsky, the zone of promixal development is THE space where new learning takes place. It is an enjoyable state, known as “flow.” It is a zone, meaning there is a range for each person, which varies as new knowledge and skills are obtained and maturation occurs. The teacher, then, must become a diagnostician, similar to a medical doctor, but in regards to the students' academic and social health and well-being. If you teach students where they are--their actual developmental level--they won't learn anything new. If you teach them beyond their current potential, they will become frustrated.

How can you teach something in the Zone? Through scaffolding, apprenticeship, guidance, coaching, tutoring, study aids, etc. It is here where Vygotksy's idea that learning precedes development makes sense. Appropriate scaffolds--a conceptual map or organizer, a half-solved math problem, an outline, a conceptual framework--can lead the learner to new ideas or skills, beyond what they would have learned on their own from their own spontaneous exploration of the topic at hand. There's a strong place for experts, mentors, teachers, and coaches in Vygotksy's model, as well as a pressing need for formative assessments that are used diagnostically, not punitively or judgmentally.

The Zone is where a learner needs help to advance. And that is a good thing! If the learner can do it on their own, it’s not stretching them or helping them grow, advance, or develop. Mistakes become causes for celebration, not shame, because they reveal the boundary or edge of students’ existing knowledge and skills, and thus provide diagnostic clues for the teacher in her work with the student.

We understand this in sports, in business, and in the growing field of lifestyle coaching. For some reason, though, public education is lagging behind. Teachers in the U.S. often function as classroom managers and distributors of curriculum (that they have not chosen), rather than as expert diagnosticians and coaches. Differentiated learning seems to be heading in the right direction, but in practice, it is often becomes something very superficial (diorama or book report, anyone?). Real differentiation is complicated and doesn't fit well in our current school model with its rigid bell schedules and age-based separation of grades.

Micro-credentialing, or giving badges or some kind of certification when a particular skill has been mastered, is an exciting new development that might be the way of the future. At UCF, we have begun exploring the potential for micro-credentialing with our teacher candidates. Yet it is also a great idea for kids, especially now that the technology exists to support it.

How would micro-credentialing work? I’m thinking that core skills for 21st century learning outcomes would have to be identified (e.g., writing a persuasive essay), then, as students provide evidence of mastery, the teacher checks off the proficiency, and the students earn a badge. Proponents of the gameification of learning advocate a similar approach, one which might be even more fun for students.

The point is not that micro-credentialing is the answer. It is a MEANS, one way to satisfy the underlying principle of challenge. The principle must be satisfied for students to learn and be engaged in what they are learning. The means to satisfying it can and should change in response to new developments and advancements in learning and technology.

Montessori had the right idea for early learners: children are given freedom to move and choose what to do. The teacher sits in a corner of the room, observing what is going on and assessing students’ mastery of various lessons, keeping a record in the student’s learning portfolio, offering new challenges when the child is ready for them.

Galileo School addresses this principle through a variety of means, including individual learning plans for each student and real differentiation of instruction, within class and across grade level as needed.

And surely, good teachers have been doing this since the dawn of public education. But it’s difficult, and time-intensive, and the entire system works against their efforts. I am wondering what changes are needed so that schools can more fully embrace the Goldilocks Principle throughout all classes and for all students?

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I would love to hear your thoughts--they help clarify my own thinking and contribute to the larger discussion on this topic. Plus, your responses help create community around this idea of school transformation. Who knows what good we can do together?

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