The Goldilocks Principle: Not Too Hot, not Too Cold

The Goldilocks Principle: Not Too Hot, not Too Cold

The Goldilocks Principle: Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold

Willy A Renandya – 8 Jan 2022

When you are presenting new materials that are ‘just right’ for your students, you are in essence applying the Goldilocks principle. The materials are neither too easy nor too difficult, too simple nor too complex or too little nor too much. When you pitch your lesson at the right level, you can expect your students to be more engaged and as a result, learn a lot more.

The just-right or Goldilocks principle is similar to Vygotsky’s concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), i.e., learning is optimal when our lesson is pitched at the students’ ZPD where they can acquire new knowledge using their own cognitive resources and/or in collaboration with their more capable peers.

More recently, people have used less technical and more teacher friendly terms to describe the same principle, i.e., Desirable Difficulty and Productive Struggle. I like these two terms as they are more illuminating.

As we all know, the words difficulty and struggle often have negative connotations. Students tend to avoid difficult tasks that require endless (and pointless) struggles.

However, when a difficult task is nicely packaged so that they spark students’ interest and curiosity, students become more willing and motivated to do their level best to complete the tasks. This is particularly so when they know that their efforts in completing the task can lead to clear and visible learning gains.

Thus the terms Desirable Difficulty and Productive Struggle mean that for optimal language learning purposes, students need to meet with the kind of difficulty or struggle that is both desirable (affective dimension) and productive (cognitive dimension).

An example of a language learning task that can engage students in productive struggles is project work. When students are presented with a real world project framed as a meaningful problem that requires authentic solutions, they are likely to sustain their interest, motivation and determination to complete the project.

In such a project, students are guided to ask questions, to learn how to collaborate with their peers to present, explain, elaborate on their ideas, to think more critically and to come up with innovative and creative solutions to an authentic problem. Examples of meaningful, age-appropriate project works can be found here.

An example of undesirable and unproductive struggles in language learning would be those discrete vocabulary and grammar exercises commonly found in traditional language classes. Students do experience difficulty and frustration completing these exercises, but the learning gains are, more often than not, negligible.

Viewing an authentically interesting TED talk with the help of subtitles or captions (or other forms of support) on the other hand is a more productive way of learning a second language. Students may experience difficulty in comprehending the contents of the TED talk, but their struggles are well worth their efforts. From a theoretical perspective, rich, interesting and comprehensible input is necessary for students to acquire the target language.

Next time you design your language learning task, make sure that it is of desirable difficulty so that students’ struggles result in productive learning gains.

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