Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Preschool has reopened, and early childhood educators are once again flooded with opportunities to witness learning and development in action.
I am convinced that there is one single factor that matters most in learning and success. It's not memory, vocabulary, visual or auditory receptivity, social skills. These things all do help. I have spoken about my thoughts on how social development drives academic learning in preschool. However, under all of this is an even more important skill -- the ability to persist, walk through discomfort, climb over those steep learning curves. It is tenacity in the face of challenge.
Puzzles are a great metaphor but also a great real life example of this. Successful jigsaw puzzle construction does not require the ability to map out the puzzle's image in your head, or to be able to predict angles and pieces fitting, or the ability to make accurate placement based on "edge" pieces or "center" pieces. Success depends simply on the ability to keep trying. Think about the number of small actions required to do a 48 piece puzzle. Doing a 48 piece puzzle takes hundreds of micro-efforts to find pieces that fit. Trying a certain piece at a certain angle, repositioning, repositioning until the next cognitive event - deciding when you've tried that piece enough times in that spot. Calculating...do I try this piece in another spot or try another piece in this spot? Even a 12 piece puzzle often takes several dozen attempts, several dozen adjustments, several dozen failures, several dozen flash decisions. This doesn't even take into consideration the amount of fine motor control being exercised, which is already a cognitive task to some degree. It also doesn't take into account the sheer number of distractions in a normal classroom environment. The brain is filtering through a lot of input for the entire duration of the task. In the practice of early childhood education, we are not teaching academics as much as we are helping forge a positive relationship between child and learning. We look for ways that we can help bring a child's experience into the range of what is challenging enough for the effort to feel rewarding when completed, but not so challenging that the distress overrides the desire to complete the task, or worse, that the distress overrides the reward upon task completion. In learning theory, this is called "just right challenge". Children need to walk through challenge, just as we do as adults. But so often, it is emotionally hard for us, or just plain inconvenient, for us to allow the child to struggle. So we step in more than necessary, robbing the child of an opportunity to practice in a small yet meaningful way, the ability to produce all those micro-efforts that eventually lead to a feeling of efficacy and internal reward. What are those ways that we are helping because it's more convenient for us? When do we fail to see that the child is within their zone of proximal development, their zone of "just right challenge", and we have taken away their chance to experience a tolerable number of micro-efforts (not micro-actions, but micro-efforts) that will allow them to witness their own process of effort-->discomfort-->success, observing themselves walking through that discomfort and observing themselves on the other side of that learning curve. Learning curves can be, but rarely are, comfortable, especially when it's about learning a brand new skill and one that offers a sense of efficacy that makes it rewarding. The higher the level of tolerable challenge, the higher the level of intrinsic reward.
Sticktoitiveness* really is the most important thing to try to cultivate in oneself. Delayed gratification is so important because the opposite (the propensity for instant gratification and giving up on long term goals when facing surmountable challenge) is addictive and so hard to untrain once you allow that pattern to set in.
*stick-to-it·ive·ness /ˌstikˈto͞oidivnəs/ noun stick-to-it-iveness