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The Non-Linear Approach To Learning

Do you remember those moments in childhood, when you had an 'aha' bulb light up in a corner of your mind as you finally understood a concept that was taught many months ago (sometimes even years ago!)? I have experienced it so many times that I have lost count. How multiplication is repeated addition, or how 'stand a tease' was actually 'stand at ease'! Learning is never linear, it is made of lulls followed by periods of awakening. Activity is anyway encouraged, but not allowing lulls to happen organically during the learning process is unfair, both to the teacher and the learner.

Schools and curriculum developers often treat learning as a linear journey, which leads to an overdependence on milestones and external measures of performance. However, milestones are but a statistical tool, and learning is a deeply personal undertaking. Whether you're in preschool or pursuing your master's, it is vital to allow for periods of no activity, periods of silence where the seeds of learning can germinate and blossom.

How can we allow for these spaces of growth as facilitators? Here are three ways by which you can accord 'ebb' time to your students.


Try to overlap concepts/objectives as much as possible.

This works across age groups and learning objectives. For example, during a lesson on the names of colors in French, I also make sure I teach the verbs to say "I like" / "I hate", as well as numbers (How many colors are in a rainbow? How many different colors do you see on this painting?). This way, the learner has three different concepts to explore (or in some cases, revise) at his/her own pace. In my opinion, even revision must happen this way.

Another example would be to teach numbers using a recipe or a shopping list. The recipe introduces verbs related to cooking, as well as the names of different dishes. All this overlap helps to create more associations in the mind and is less easily forgotten. A student who has forgotten the names of numbers now has space to revise them, without feeling like a failure. While it's important to not cram your class with too many objectives, creating a distributed lesson plan is an important way to create empty moments that can boost learning.


Do not demand mastery from day one.

I see this a lot and makes me wonder, how is this even a reasonable ask? There is also an expectation that the student will remember what was taught in the previous class perfectly, without any prompts or revision. All this just means that the teacher believes in linear learning. While this may be true for a small group of students, most of us learn in chunks. Spending too much time waiting for mastery over a single concept is only a waste of time. This again ties in with #1 above. Overlapping topics and allowing for less-than-perfect outcomes helps the student catch up over a period of time.

It is also important to verbalize your expectation clearly, especially if it involves a no-error/no-mistake outcome. For example, if I choose to give a dictation after the student has learned a set of words, I like to tell him/her that I'm expecting it to be error-free, as it is a dictation. This helps them prepare mentally and not feel dejected when they receive a low score. Telling the students beforehand makes them equal partners and therefore, more willing to learn and correct their mistakes.


Repetition is inevitable.

I know it's tiring to teach the same thing over and over again, but there's no other way. In the words of the American author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar,

"Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment."

Just because you have to repeat, you do not have to make it boring. There are many creative ways and one important tip that I read somewhere, was to always use a different example from what you originally gave, when you're asked to clarify a doubt or repeat. This keeps it fresh, both for you and your student.

Hope these tips work for you, as they do for me, and what about you? Do you believe that learning is non-linear too? How do you ensure you create space in your class? Please do share in the comments!