February 17, 2010

Staircases and Habitrails

Filed under: creativity,education,gifted,learning,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 11:56 am

I recently came across this post about task analysis, an approach to helping many students master new concepts by carefully breaking them down into steps:

I believe that every new skill can be broken down into steps. We follow a certain procedure no matter what we do. Everything has its own recipe.

I fear that so much of education has swung in this behaviorist direction that we are losing touch with the countervailing trend in what our students do on their own, with their own time and self-directed learning. We have also created entire generations of teachers who learn — and therefore teach– via this step-by-step approach.

There is no question that for many learners, both young and not-so-young, staircases work. The risers are of equal size and measure out to arrive exactly at the landing after the prescribed number of upward swings of the legs. No single step is too taxing, and success is virtually guaranteed, provided we allow for differing rates of speed in going up the steps. Once a teacher masters the analytical skill of measuring out and calculating the amount of rise and number of steps, he/she is likely to guide most learners to the desired landing.

Now look at how our students learn when left to their own devices. Instead of staircases, some students’ learning takes place via giant, expanded Habitrail-like environments with wheels, chutes, interwoven tubes and shortcuts, and even a tube with an open-ended escape the big, wide world. The speed and rapid turns of these learners may not be suited to staircases, but they often have no other choice. They may see tasks a big pictures, with favored route that go by way of the big,wide world. They may even chose to climb three times farther and descend to the desired landing. They may never even cross that landing becuase they have built a direct chute to a whole different level. In a web 2.0 world, learning can be much more of a build-your-own Habitrail than a well-designed staircase.

Some kids prefer running up and down stairs over and over. As adults, we assume that everyone wants to go up. Some learners want to start at the top then appreciate the steps by exploring them (or striding briefly past a few at a time) on the way down.

I sincerely hope that those who teach do not forget that staircases, no matter how admirably engineered, may not be the way their students learn. Trying to navigate even a well-designed staircase can be a bruising experience for the leapers and learners who choose another way.


  1. I could not agree more. In fact, I think that we have so conditioned our kids into needing these steps spelled out before, during and after each task we assign, that they have difficulty figuring out how to best do things for themselves! And that last element, that self-directed learning process, is so important…perhaps more important than the curricular learning in the task itself.

    Comment by Tara — March 3, 2010 @ 10:22 am

  2. I totally agree and love your Habitrail analogy. It is amazing to me that so many educators still rely on the tried-and-true staircase philosophy of teaching just because it is easier. I’m surprised that the excitement of discovery, as a teacher-learner, does not draw more in my profession into this kind of instruction. Students are more willing than their teachers to venture down the “chutes” and “tubes” of 21st century problem-solving. Obviously, there needs to be a shift in the way all teachers teach, beginning early in elementary schools, to accommodate this new way of thinking for both students and teachers. The earlier children are exposed to this way of teaching and learning, the more willing both parties will be to embrace their new roles in education.

    Comment by Julie — March 15, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

  3. I do think a lot of new teachers are afraid of allowing too much freedom in the learning process. It can be intimidating to see your students suddenly bound off the well-worn footpath that you know so well, and disappear in a direction you don’t feel comfortable with. A teacher needs to provide guidance in the learning process, and not all new teachers feel comfortable guiding blindly through the jungle of the unknown. While a “stepwise” approach can certainly stifle creativity and retard the pace of learning in some children, sometimes it is advisable in the first few months of teaching, during which the teacher’s confidence is growing and they are developing their own sense of adventure.

    Comment by Pearl — April 23, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

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