Observe The “Goldilocks Effect” In Action

 learning happens when it's "just right"

“Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skill and comprehension in a way that’s necessary for them at the time. Often children seem to reject what they aren’t ready to learn, only to return to the same skill or concept later with ease. This is not only an expression of autonomy, it’s a clear indicator that each child is equipped with an learning guidance system of his or her own.”

I wrote these words two years ago in my book Free Range Learning. This concept is now being called the “Goldilocks effect.” According to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE, humans are cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” It’s the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The study focused on how babies make sense of our complex world. For years researchers have noticed a contradiction. Sometimes babies prefer to look at familiar items, like a toy from home. Other times they prefer to look at unfamiliar items. Turns out this isn’t a contradiction at all. Babies self-regulate by choosing the amount of novelty and complexity that’s right for them at the time.

They also, according to the study, actively seek out the most reliable information and can predict what will happen next based on what they’ve seen. Babies are a great way to study human behavior. That’s because infants aren’t burdened with cultural and patterned responses. Babies indicate what all of us are like in our most basic form.

The Goldilocks effect has to do with learning at all ages. You are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now. Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold the player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a fascination of their own tend to learn more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

How do we see this in action? By looking at children through the eyes of trust.

The little boy who’d rather stomp in muddy puddles after a rainstorm than attend story hour at the library may need that full sensory experience outdoors more than he needs, right now, to sit still in a group and listen quietly. He’d probably prefer hearing stories while sitting in a parent’s lap where he benefits from closeness and can ask questions as they occur to him.

The girl who prefers to draw pictures of animals and fairies rather than run outside to play with the neighborhood kids may need more time for quiet self-expression than other children. Her imaginative art fuels growth in all sorts of areas, one of which may be a sturdier sense of self that will help her interact more freely with others when she’s ready.

The teenager who drops out when she’s reached a high level of accomplishment in an area, say soccer or fencing or designing apps. What she’s learned in that field isn’t wasted. It’s taught her a whole range of skills and empowered her to move on. She may pursue other interests in what look like fits and starts of motivation. Or the learning situation that’s just right for her may look like boredom to others. She may need time to process, daydream, create, and grow from within before pushing ahead.

Children naturally focus on what they’re ready to take in and do their best to set aside the rest. Often what they set aside is exactly what adults push them to master. We call this stubbornness but really they show us, over and over, that human nature flourishes best without coercion. Efforts to structure learning too heavily are likely to fail (or more often, the student will fail) if it’s not understood that we’re all cued to learn in the ways best for us.


Raising Aspiring Emigrants

Kids are their own people. Any of us can see this is an underlying theme in drama (in books, on the screen, and in real life dramas).  It’s obvious from a quick look at how much our friends differ from their own parents. Years ago I joked that my anti-establishment neighbor’s son might just grow up to be a conservative stockbroker and that my frantically risk-averse friend could end up with a thrill-seeking daughter. I learned pretty quickly such jokes are not appreciated.

But I thought I understood that kids go their own way reasonably well. I’ve managed to celebrate the unique passions my own kids pursue, even though their interests are nothing like mine. I’m glad to see that we’re largely in sync on bigger issues. My kids and I tend to agree on politics and religion, we share a disinterest in most sports, and we’re all somewhat introverted. What we don’t share? A desire to stay close to our roots, geographically speaking. I’ve tried to raise them to be global citizens. Is it possible to take that too far? I’ve always lived close to my hometown and extended family. One or two of my four kids may not have that gene.

One of my sons is entranced by Finland. I think it started while chatting with online Finnish friends. Hankering to drive, he told me that kids in Finland are encouraged to get driving experience starting at a very young age and given training to handle slippery and hazardous road conditions (ice + moose, for example). The licensing requirements are some of the strictest in the world, he explained, a pointed contrast to the jerk on the road in front of us at the time who was cutting off cars and weaving across lanes.

My son also has a thing for Finnish music, starting with the now iconic band Apocalyptica formed by classically trained cellists.

Finnish musicians offer plenty of diversity, including partially submerged folk singers

and dancing puffballs.

And he is inspired by the Finnish spirit. He sees it in their traditions and history (I never thought I’d hear so much about the Winter War). Finnish character is said to have a lot to do with the term sisu. This doesn’t translate easily. It’s related to inner will and the determination to persist despite the odds. This spirit, as my son sees it, also has to do with the Finnish way of doing things. That includes summer competitions that Finns call “world championships” in swamp soccer, mobile phone throwing, and wife carrying. Or a recent proposal in Parliament to extend the annual four-week paid holiday by another week, for a “love holiday.”

Browsing around the web, I can see the allure. The country has stunning beauty and cultural richness. Newsweek ranked Finland the world’s best country in 2010 based on high life expectancy, high literacy rates, minimal income gap, excellent access to health care, and a good work-leisure balance. In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World it was noted that people in Finland are remarkably content. Of course we’ve all heard about Finland’s world-class school system. Their educational approach says quite a bit about the country. Schools there don’t rely on standardized tests or a heavy homework load but instead emphasize balance, giving kids plenty of time for outdoor play, art, and music. That seems to reflect a general emphasis on living at a slower pace and enjoying life’s simpler pleasures. I may have to adjust to having one of my beloved offspring emigrate some day. (sob)

But another of my kids is talking up New Zealand. Land of fascinating spider species, amazing diversity, and gorgeous vistas.

Also home to the compelling Haka, traditional ancestral war cry of the Maori people, now performed by the All Blacks, NZ’s rugby team, before their matches.

Serves me right for joking about other people’s children. Come to think of it, my attempts at humor weren’t all that far off. My anti-establishment neighbor’s son is now in college getting a degree in business, hoping to work in investment banking. The daughter of my risk-averse friend is into barefoot climbing.

Guess I’d better make sure my passport is in order.