In the winter of 1968-69, I was asked by a friend to spend a weekend with him and his parents at their family’s vacation condo near Mammoth Mountain, California. The snow total for that year was extreme, as nearly 40 feet of the white stuff fell there that winter. I remember 20 foot walls of snow rising on each side of the streets in what is now the town of Mammoth Lakes. I also remember climbing up snow stairs rising from the second story balcony of their condo to begin a long sled run that, once ended, led us into a extensive snow tunnel to the front door, then up the stairs inside the condo, through a bedroom, then out onto the balcony where we would climb the snow stairs and start all over again. Lastly, I remember the 300 mile drive from Los Angeles, where 10 year old me kept asking, “Are we there yet?”
The first Condition for Learning that we assess and summarize is clarity of performance expectations. It sits in that primary seat partly because it is derived from the first term (antecedent) of Skinner’s 3-term contingency model for human behavior. You probably remember operant conditioning from your Psych 101 class. In Conditions for Leaning terms, when expectations for performance are clear, it is more likely for students to elicit accurate responses. Keep in mind that I am not talking about the process from the perspective of a teacher, whom, as often as possible, does what they can to clarify their expectations. I am talking about whether or not the student is clear about what is expected of them regardless of what the teacher attempts.
Of course, to provide feedback to teachers, this information needs to be reconsidered from their point of view. As in, “What do I do now if my students are confused?” From the teacher’s perspective, clarifying expectations sounds like instruction, which precedes the actual student performance, which in turn precedes feedback for that performance. Unfortunately, this makes the process sound linear and ordinal. It isn’t. And despite the technical language, even Skinner’s model was recursive and recognized the soft edges of each term. The Conditions for Learning certainly overlap, but that’s what gives them synergy.
The next Condition for Learning that we assess and summarize is the abundance of practice opportunities to build basic skills to fluency. Of course, part of this process includes specific and timely feedback so that students can repeat or adjust their performance as necessary. What’s really interesting is how the development of skills improves clarification for their performance. That is, the more someone practices something and receives feedback on how well they completed the task, the clearer idea they have of what exactly is expected. This creates a virtuous cycle between skill building and clarifying performance expectations.
For simple problems like 2+2=?, responding “4” and getting positive feedback increases my confidence in responding that way again to the same prompt. That is, it is clearer to me that “4” gets me the feedback I desire. For more complex problems, like drawing a circle, increasingly more accurate approximations help clarify how my hand and arm should move to make a circle that looks like the one I’m supposed to draw. So, clear expectations increase the likelihood of correct performance, AND, performance identified as correct increases the clarity of expectations. This suggests that teachers do more than begin the process. Through timely feedback, they help refine the performance as well.
Let’s examine this using a more common instructional model: “I do – we do – you do.” Clarifying expectations feels like the “I do” part of the model. But, even in the “we do” part you would find practice, feedback, and additional clarification before the student is prompted to demonstrate alone. The teacher may ping back and forth between “I do” and “we do” until they are confident that the “you do” part won’t go awry. As clear as this model seems, it’s still recursive and soft at those edges.
The Punch Line
This has huge implications for teachers. If a student can’t approximate a skill after a few attempts at instruction, they can never truly gain clarity about expectations, and they certainly can’t improve their performance. In other words, they can’t enter this virtuous cycle at that point. So to answer the question, “What do I do now if my students are confused?”, teachers must consider if students can even begin approximating the desired performance. If not, then more appropriate curricular standards should be identified for those students: a place where they can enter this cycle and improve.
We have been collecting data on these conditions for years, but I’ll share two findings from the most recent couple of years.
1 – Academic expectations get clearer as students grow older. This could be explained in several ways. First, teachers teach and students learn. This is supported by the fact that elementary students experience measurably clearer expectations as the school year progresses. Of course, this could also reflect lowered expectations. As suggested above, this is appropriate for struggling students, but these data can’t suggest if any new expectations were targeted, or relaxed in frustration. Also, students who fall behind might ultimately drop out or leave the traditional system. So by attrition alone, the remaining students in the high schools report the clear academic expectations they experienced all along.
2 – Opportunities to build basic skills to fluency decline as students get older. This seems appropriate, as most basic academic (e.g., reading, vocabulary, elementary math) skills should be appropriately fluent by high school. However, failure rates in many language arts, math, and science classes would suggest that there are many students who could benefit from continuing efforts to build those skills. Of course, the skills I am writing about are defined as “basic” because we use them every day of our lives (e.g., reading, vocabulary, elementary math). Thus, they should be practiced every day of our lives, and that means in High School too. Sorry, no rest for the weary.
Are we there yet?
So, why was 10 year old me so confused about the length of the trip and how I should behave in the back seat of their car? I can assure you that my friend’s parents were both amused and annoyed at my persistent inquiry. And thus, I can only speculate that they tried over and over again to communicate that the trip would last hours and that I should hold my question for more than the 10 minute interval I was then employing. I should mention that we were in a large Cadillac going nearly 100 miles per hour. I’m not sure if my friend’s dad drove like that normally or the high pitched interrogation was a bit too much for him.
Of course there were two sets of expectations here: first the expectation my friend’s parents had about my behavior, and my expectation that the trip would end sooner. In hindsight, my expectation was a bit unreasonable as the man was already driving at nearly 100 miles per hour. That said, my friend’s parents tried to be clear and I was certainly old enough to understand the theoretical nature of time. But I didn’t understand that they wanted me to act like their son, and more to the point, I don’t think I could.
Now, they could have insisted I be quiet, but we were about to spend a couple of days together trapped in a snowbound condo and they may have already been regretting the invitation. Besides, they were way too nice to do that. This is where the “I do” method in isolation fails. What I lacked was a real life understanding of time passage relative to the length of the trip. You could say it was a deficit in basic skills that created my confusion and an endless desire to test their patience. Of course we didn’t have abundant chances to repeat the trip so that I could learn with practice, but for me and fortunately for them, the one experience seemed to do the trick. I learned from the drive up; and for the trip home a new skill was developed, confusion was reduced, expectations were clarified, and the questioning ceased (mostly?). Okay, now we’re there.