Linearity and learning

When I was a teenager, my stepdad taught me how to hit a golf ball. He was a humanities teacher for most of his career (and a bloody good one – speaking as one of his former students), and a single-figure handicap golfer (and still is). Being the impatient teen I was, I’d get frustrated with my perceived lack of progress as he taught me the techniques (physical and mental) that I needed to master if I wanted to get better. I’d feel like I was working as hard as I could, but that I wasn’t getting better. Then, every now and then, I’d ‘spike’, and my skill (or at least the measure of my skill, namely my scores around a course), would move to the ‘next level’ – dropping a few handicap strokes in a short time before plateauing again.

To my stepdad, this was completely normal. He’d be constantly reassuring me during my ‘flatline’ times to just stick at it. That learning was rarely linear. That I just needed to keep working on the right stuff, and eventually things would ‘click’ – until I reached a level where my natural abilities were at their limit (which for me was around a nine handicap – although some would have argued that my impatience just finally got the better of me – and other still would just say that I got distracted by other things that teenage boys tend to get distracted by). He used to call it the ‘S curve’, a term used to represent that rapid learning that occurs early on in a single, clearly defined learning process. He’d also argue that during some ‘plateau’ times a learner would sometimes even go backwards a little, which required even more faith to keep working at the learning process. Its also worth noting that his teaching method was more or less linear and holistic – it was rare that he’d drop some ‘big new concept’ on me, or that we’d be working on one isolated component, it was far more fluid – but my learning (or even more specifically, my skill building) progress was anything but linear.

I’ve been teaching my son how to bowl a cricket ball for the last three summers, and I’m seeing exactly the same thing. I’ve seen the plateaus, his frustration when he’s not improving, and then the rapid ‘spike’ in skill followed by the acceptance (as kids seem to be able to do) that the new level is now the new ‘normal’. I’ve watched it happen with his batting (cricket again), with how he hits a golf ball (shown below, just because I felt like it), and to a lesser extent with his reading and music. I’ve made sure that with his sporting stuff I’ve taken video so that during the times when he is plateauing I can play it back and say to him ‘Remember when this was your ‘normal’? See how far you’ve come? Stick at it – the next level will come as long as you keep working at it.’

So why this post?

Aside from allowing myself a little nostalgia and reflection, the bigger questions are:

  1. Is this an ‘accepted’ phenomenon, that learning (or skill building) does not happen in a linear fashion, but as ‘stepwise bursts’ in mathsy language – and if so, what is the name of this phenomenon? It is similar to the concept of an ‘S-curve’ described here, but on a longer spectrum, with bursts of improvement happening while working towards a longer term goal (rather than learning a single, simple, clearly defined skill).
  2. Is the phenomenon more common among skills that relate to ‘muscle memory’ (like sport), rather than purely mental skills?
  3. How much is this phenomenon taken into account by educators, curriculum designers and administrators when attempting to construct an effective learning environment?

I asked a short version of this question to my (normally outstanding) Twitter peeps, and got little more than smart arse responses back (which is fair – that’s what I usually give them), so I thought I’d ask here.

Responses of all kinds very welcome :)

PS sorry I’ve not blogged for so long. As life’s complexity increases, so does the challenge of me finding enough time to write.

PPS thanks to Lawrence and Jas for coming up with the best response, and the wikipedia link, to my Twitter musings. Yet again I think how blessed I am to work with clever people.