Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

May 15, 2011

Compressed Air and Overlearning

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 2:27 am
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There is a crumb stubbornly stuck in your computer keyboard.  You’ve tried every thin implement you have to wrangle it loose, to no avail.  What you really need is right under your nose.  Actually, it is flowing in and out of your nose,  Air. Simple, straight forward air, But even the strongest blow out your nose or mouth won’t dislodge the stubborn crumb.  You need air with power, highly compressed air that comes in cans.  Nothing has been added, no magical ingredients, just air, held tight in the can until you are ready to release it.

As parents and educators, we often want children to be able to demonstrate a behavior or skill that we think, thanks to our teaching, is “in the can”.  We’ve explained multiplication tables, or the need to brush your teeth, or the negative consequences of fighting with younger children, carefully and thoroughly, we believe.   We may even have witnessed the child demonstrate mastery of the skill, in quiet moments and under certain circumstances.  We are puzzled and perhaps a bit annoyed when, at other times, the exact same behavior seems to have gone into hiding.  How can we ingrain skills and knowledge into our children’s and student’s repertoires so they will be there always, even in times of stress and challenge?

The compressed air can, with its amplification of the power of air by simply crowding it all together, reminds me of the paradigm of overlearning and automaticity.  Adults are able to drive cars and children able to ride bikes because they have so completely mastered the complex skills necessary that they have become largely automatic.  This can only occur when hours, days and months of practice have compressed into a solid sum of experience.  There are no short-cuts, no simple tricks.  Just hours logged. 

In today’s culture of quick answers and videogame entertainments it is no easy sell to convince children of the value of compressed and intense practice.  Using the age old Premack principle, also known in less scientific circles as Grandma’s Rule, that is you can have a cookie after you eat your broccoli, may be helpful.  Beyond environmental and motivational techniques to encourage practice that builds to overlearning, adults must help children recognize the value of repetition in strengthening skills.  Sharing our own experience may be less powerful than helping children remember how helpful overlearning has been for them.  Perhaps a reminder of how all that soccer practice helped them know what to do in the critical last minute of the game, or that reviewing their lines play over and over helped make them the star of the play.

Many cans of compressed air come with an extension tube that attaches to the nozzle and allows you to direct the powerful air just where you want it.  That’s the real powerful overlearning adults would like for children.    We want the learning focused at the moments they are asked to ride in the car of a drinking driver, or when they are tempted to join peers who are bullying a classmate, when they need to make quick and morally right decisions.  So we talk and teach, and re-teach, and teach again, about staying safe and making good decisions, and hope our children overlearn each critical word.  Mostly, we hope and pray that our words have the impact of the compressed air can, and are not just hot air.



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