Learn the Difference Between Performance and Learning

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The learning process is well understood, but so often we fail to use what we know. When you understand what learning is, and how performance is different from learning, you may find that your daughter getting 100% on all her worksheets could actually be a bad thing.

Let me tell you a tale of two classes. The first isn’t a specific class, but rather the classroom most of us grew up in, which is not unlike the classroom our children now inhabit. In this class, the teacher hands out the same worksheet to all the students and they each work on it alone, without help. One hypothetical student, let’s call her Alice, rips through the worksheet in seconds. It’s far below her level and mainly an annoyance that stands between her and recess. A few minutes later, Alice is done and staring off into space as she waits for everyone else to catch up. She’s learning that success comes to her not because of how hard she works, but because she was born better. Meanwhile, Barry, sitting next to Alice, is noodling hard on question five. He stares at the paper and wracks his brain until the answer dawns on him and he jots it down with a brief triumphant rush. As he labors to finish his work, he’s feeling bad because although he’ll finish his worksheet, he expects to get a few questions wrong and it takes him much longer than Alice. “Why can’t I be more like Alice?” he thinks to himself. Meanwhile Clare, sitting next to Barry, has her head down on the desk. She doesn’t understand this worksheet at all. She has no inkling that it might be because she’s not sleeping well, or that she transferred into the district last semester, or that she’s saddled with an undiagnosed learning disability. Her informal diagnosis (provided to her by peers and teachers alike) is that she’s lazy and not very smart, and she’d better get with the program — or else! For an instant, she wonders what Barry or Alice might say if she asked for help, but that is against the rules. And besides, she knows as certainly as she knows anything that she’ll be dead last in the class whether she tries hard or not at all, so what’s the point, really?

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Now let’s move on to another class, but this time it’s a swimming class. It happens to be an actual class, but I’ll avoid naming names to protect the modesty of those involved. This swim school offers individual lessons and costs a good bit more than group lessons, but parents don’t complain about the fees and in a moment you’ll understand why. Every instructor in this school is not only a great swimmer, but understands the process and stages students go through from complete novices to competitive swimmers. Beyond the physical skills of swimming, these swim coaches have realistic understandings of each student’s ability to coordinate physical movements, hold attention, as well as students’ levels of stamina and conditioning. They know these things because they are continuously watching and assessing each student’s progress. Swim teachers point out successes and problems immediately and repeatedly so a student has hundreds of chances to improve in each 30-minute lesson. Most remarkable (especially for those of us who remember that other classroom) is the way these instructors seem to actively avoid training skills to mastery. Once a student has even a basic ability to use a skill, the instructor goes on to something new and more challenging. One student who just learned to swim a full lap of freestyle (with difficulty) is already learning the rudiments of the butterfly! Once the basic skill is established, brief reviews over subsequent weeks bring that skill closer to mastery, but it never becomes a grind. The coaches ask far more of the students than they can possibly deliver, yet even though students are doing what the instructor asks “wrong” between 50% and 75% of the time, the focus is on making little improvements with every stroke. The kids stay challenged, encouraged, and engaged. The parents are amazed at how far and how fast their children progress.

There are dozens of important differences between these two scenarios, but I’d like to highlight just one. In the traditional classroom, success is measured by demonstrated mastery and precision — a measure of performance. Performance measures aren’t bad, but if we lose sight of the fact that performance is what awaits us at the end of a very long road called “learning,” then we end up with people like Alice (who usually learns without effort, and doesn’t know what to do when the going gets tough), or Barry (who is learning, but feels bad because he can’t yet perform at Alice’s level), or Clare (who is pushed beyond her level without feedback or support and is thus vulnerable to falling into helplessness.)

Individual instruction for every student may be impractical, but I believe that what those swim coaches know and practice can be brought into every classroom. The gifted Alices of the world need to understand that their talents are not a meal ticket and that while they might be able to learn without much effort when they are young, unless they become proficient in using the skills of learning material just outside their grasp, they will be academically handicapped by the time they reach high school or college. All the students like Barry, who are studying hard but disappointed to watch gifted students fly by them without effort, need to know that they are the ones doing real learning. The habit of applying attention and effort is far more valuable than a perfect SAT score over the long haul, however difficult it makes getting into the right college. And for all the Clares of the world, who are ready to throw in the towel if they haven’t already, know that inability to perform on any given task isn’t an indictment, it’s a sign to find the source of the problem and search for a way around the obstacles to learning. If we made learning as I’ve defined it here more important than performance, then I think we’d start to see in our schools what I’ve seen at the swim class: engagement, enthusiasm, and progress far beyond our expectations.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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