What if we encouraged young learners, when they encounter a difficult learning task, to replace the words “I don’t get it” with “I haven’t figured out the problem yet”? Can changing just a few small words make learners more comfortable when they work on unfamiliar or difficult activities?
I’ve spent the last month mulling over this word change idea after participating in Hour of Code activities with young 21st Century learners at my school in December. Watching the children in kindergarten and grades three, four and five solve puzzles and play the unfamiliar coding games was eye-opening, because in each class the majority of students — and some of the teachers — were working on learning tasks that they had never encountered before (definitely terra incognita).
On the first day of our first Hour of Code class the children set about working on the activities at Code.org. We introduced the activities by talking about solving puzzles and what it means to create coding instructions, and we watched friendly and cheerful people in the Code.org videos talk about how great — and how much fun — coding can be for everyone, no matter what age. Almost all of the class members enjoyed learning to play the games and celebrating the idea of writing instructions with code, so the room was filled with the hubbub of students working together, talking aloud to themselves, and sharing solutions.
Still, a few children, boys and girls, were at first, completely mystified by such a new type of learning task and asked for help by waving their hands in agitation and saying, “I don’t get it.”
So we added one new guideline to our Hour of Code instructions. We requested that children replace the words “I don’t get it,” with “I have not figured out this problem yet.” We asked each of our young learners, while they waited for help, to point to the place on the screen where they were having trouble and try to explain to themselves what specific instruction was causing problems. We assured them that one of the teachers would soon be there to help but pointed out that we’d need an explanation of the problem.
This one simple change in the directions changed the tone in the room. The students who found the coding activities challenging showed less agitation and their concentration increased (and so did the hubbub, but that was just fine). Instead of a few wildly waving hands and fretting faces, the students who needed assistance focused on describing the problems that they encountered and more often than not, figured them out — sometimes before one of us stopped by to help.
A change in strategy, yes, but really just a change in words. The difference was in the meaning the words conveyed. “I don’t get it,” implies that it may be nearly impossible to figure out. “I haven’t solved the problem — yet.” implies that, while it may take some time, the problem will be considered, reviewed, and resolved successfully. Perhaps we should all learn to rearrange these words.
What a difference a few words can make!