Celebrating the Baby Steps of Learning

8 10 2010

In the 80’s movie, “What About Bob?” Richard Dreyfuss plays a Psychologist who is tormented by one of his patients played by none other than Bill Murray. The plot sounds like a low-budget thriller, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember that there are some pretty choice scenes . Besides, Bill Murray isn’t really the right character to cast in a horror film.

“Bob” suffers from an extreme Anxiety Disorder and in one memorable scene, his doctor successfully coaches him to refrain from looking too far into the future and to rather view the path of his progress in “baby-sized steps”. The Doctor’s theory did break down with Bob however, and the result was a bumbling mess of alternate sub-plots and Hollywood laughs.

The idea of tackling tasks in bite-sized chunks has merit for educators and I’ve witnessed the results of celebrating the learning that takes place at each step. Rewards don’t need to be tangible, they just need to be meaningful.

A few years back, I was an Educational Assistant at a Fine Arts School in Abbotsford. I was part of a tremendous team of individuals who modeled affirmation daily in the Resource Room. Goals of any size were worth celebrating, because with each of our students, learning was about progress, not perfection.

“Gloria” (not her real name) was a Gr. 4 student who had several profound learning disabilities. She was deaf and could only see 10% out of one eye. She was fed through a tube and didn’t talk in ways that any of us could understand. In spite of her communication challenges though, she did know how to express joy.

On this particular day, Gloria and her EA were working on spelling simple one-syllable, three-letter words. The strategy being used was that the EA would write the first and last letter on the white board and hand Gloria the pen to put in the middle letter. I watched the letters “B” and “S” put on the board with an open space separating the two.

The pen was handed to the student and a long silence followed. No one moved, because this was Gloria’s moment to shine.

When Gloria put the letter “c” in the middle, all of us who were watching felt the same sense of disappointment. The correct answer (we thought) was the letter “u” that would spell the word “bus”. But what Gloria did next will be something that few of us will forget: She put a letter “a” in front of the word so that it spelled “ABCS” – a song that she sang daily with her teacher.

It was cause for celebration and collectively we praised Gloria for her achievement. The smile she then displayed was one of my favorite memories of that year. That day, I learned that academic achievements at any level are always worth celebrating, and that the rewards of those achievements are not just for the students.

I’ve since heard that Gloria has made some significant strides in her learning and surpassed the expectations of many in what she is able to do. For me, it underscores the importance of encouragement, affirmation and patience in the development of all learners. Is there something you see around you today that is worth celebrating?

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One response

12 10 2010
Anna Lownie

Hey Brad! I think some of the best learning takes place when teachers let go of their objectives and let students guide them. It actually seems very self absorbed to think that your goals for the lesson is the best approach for student learning. Fostering connections with your students can be your best guage to know when the “perfect” lesson needs to be forgotten.
This mind set also needs to be taken in “baby steps of learning.” Just as we celebrate our students accomplishments, we also need to be proud of ourselves when we have hit the mark of authentic learning.
Having a student such as Gloria in our classrooom remind us the importance bring forth these achievements. Together, perhaps we can create the “perfect” day!

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