A rough guide to the stages of learning and what it means to you when helping your child succeed in a positive manner.

Some new parents ask that their children be given more homework. This is a natural thought.  They can see their child making good progress on 5 or 10 minutes a day so it seems a perfectly logical expectation that they could be ready to go to university by year 7 if only they did half an hour a day! Unfortunately, rather like pensions, what you put in does not necessarily relate to what you get out.

How long is too long?

As a rough guide, the average child can concentrate on a demanding activity for 1 minute for each year of their age plus 2. Thus a 5 year old can concentrate for about 7 minutes and a 10 year old for 12 minutes and so on. Students on our maths and English programmes begin to develop their ability to concentrate. Trying to make a 5 year old concentrate for 20 minutes say, is a self defeating and pointless activity. Some people will argue that children can concentrate for hours on a computer game – but this is not so. The computer game asks for an immediate response – it flashes and chirrups to constantly attract the child’s attention. A computer game demands concentration for a matter of seconds only – but is then instantly demanding attention again on the next task. Each task requires only careful eye tracking and a movement of the thumb. Children concentrate on a thousand tasks one after another when playing computer games. Compare that to doing a long division sum – or writing a blog. You have to concentrate on writing each word, but each word forms part of a sentence, each sentence is part of a paragraph and each paragraph is part of the text. Whilst I am thinking about how to spell “Whilst” I have to plan the whole sentence and remember I have said previously. Dodging a computerised bullet requires quick reactions – that is all.

The complexity of learning

As children grow the types of learning task become more and more demanding. First, children must remember facts (e.g. 2 x 2 = 4 or sentences end with a full stop). After they have learnt the facts parrot fashion then they begin to understand them. They can imagine 2 groups of 2 and see in their mind 4 and they can recognise the purpose of a sentence and how punctuation is helpful. The next step is to apply that knowledge (and this is where adults must be really patient. I wish I had 5p for every time I had said to a student "What does a sentence begin with" and for the student to reply confidently "A capital letter" and yet for there to be no evidence of capital letters in their writing.) Children and students have to develop automaticity, i.e. the ability to do a task without thinking. As adults most of us learnt how to drive. Our first driving lesson was horrendous, as we tried to remember what all those pedals did, whilst at the same time trying to look in the mirror, keep your eye on the road ahead and constantly monitor the speedometer. When you have learnt to drive it all becomes automatic – but it took practice – lots of it.  That is exactly the challenge that children face and it takes time and constant repetition.

When children are about 10 or 11 they should begin to develop analytical skills. They will still have to remember and learn new information.  At secondary school they will be taking new subjects, e.g. French which will require a lot of just straight forward memory. Learning tables and other memory tasks as a primary school child will hopefully have developed their memory and will make it easier for them as secondary school children. However, analysis will involve transferring one form of information into another e.g. a diagram. They will manipulate learned facts and use them in new ways. It is at this time that children can develop a love of detectives, puzzles and mysteries.

Using all their skills and knowledge to create and generate new ideas is the next step. Teenagers like to spend more of their time with others of the same age endlessly talking about what could be and coming up with possibilities for their future and their present. Some change their personalities and try on new identities with a confusing ease. This ability to play with new ways of thinking, new ways of using language can lead to whole new youth cultures.

Evaluate, judge and assess

Finally (and sometimes most upsettingly for parents) comes the confidence to evaluate, judge and assess. Teenagers will come to new ideas about their beliefs based on their new and profound understanding of the world. Religious ideals can be lost or found and parents can face a new and very intense form of questioning. 4 year olds will ask "Why" incessantly e.g. "Why is the sky blue?" and will not necessarily expect a logical explanation. "Because it is." Parents of teenagers face a much more perceptive interrogation. "Why if you are a vegetarian do you drink from a bone china mug - made from the bones of animals!?")

Not all children will pass through all the stages with the same degree of sophistication. Some of us know adults fixated on evaluating the performance of football managers or who endlessly judge cars by barely understood statistics e.g. its bhp or torque value. As parents we may regret the passing of a particular stage but we would not want our children to end up as fixated adults. Can you imagine a world made up of the t.v. persona of Jeremy Clarkson (he is in life, so I am told, much cleverer than he seems on t.v.) or a Berlusconi? We must help our children grow to be the best that they can be, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Lorraine and I are proud and pleased that you let us help in your child's development.


This article was written for MagiKats by STEVE STEPHENS

Steve's bio:  After working  for a decade in the third world teaching in local schools, I returned to the UK where I specialise in the assessment and diagnosis of individuals with specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia). I then design and implement  teaching programmes to develop the skills of affected students. I help Lorraine with MagiKats and author the Durham and Chester-le-Street Facebook page.