Is the Sweet Spot in the School Library?

In a September 5 article at Mind/Shift, Emily Hanford and Stephen Smith write about “the sweet spot” for learning, that place of just-right difficulty that inspires persistence and yields satisfaction in learning.  For students, (and really, I guess, all kinds of learners), problems or exercises that are too hard don’t enable learners to make good sense of what they’re doing, or don’t let them feel like they’re making enough progress to stay the course.  And on the other hand, stuff that’s too easy is boring.

But the sweet spot– the tough-enough challenge that eggs us on through baby steps of success and at least some glimmer of light visible at the end of the tunnel — is where learning feels worthwhile and possible, and thereby becomes motivating.  So how do teachers, and I’ll add, school librarians, find this sweet spot for kids in classrooms of diverse learners?  Is it through technology tools, asks the title of this Mind/Shift piece, “Can Technology Help Students Find the ‘Sweet Spot’ for Learning?”

Thinking back to the individualized instruction in one-room-school-houses and the shift to today’s age-based classrooms, the authors question whether students are spending enough time in their own learning sweet spots.  Or, are they just aligning with their best paths for learning on occasion?  Are they spending the rest of their time like Goldilocks– with instruction that’s too fast or slow, reading levels that are too easy or too hard, or – extending to the library, inquiry topics and projects that are just ok, but not really just-right either?

Hanford and Smith ask, with commentary from prominent educators like differentiated instruction expert Carol Ann Tomlinson and cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, whether technology might foster more experiences in the learning sweet spot.

The technology described in the article is mostly individualized computer learning programs (rather than digital research or creative student learning products), and I get a little uneasy about the idea of “putting kids on computers.”  However– I really like the potential of the differentiated instruction as a way to describe inquiry in the school library!  All the time, I use words like “relevant” and “meaningful to the learner” when talking about projects with choices for research questions, processes, and products, but it’s been awhile since I’ve actually said, “differentiated instruction.”

Isn’t this what librarians do all the time in supporting students’ book choices, helping them find information, and facilitating research?  Oh, sugar!  Are we in the sweet spot and didn’t know it– or didn’t call it that?   Maybe it’s time to emphasize that all this library learning is really differentiated instruction.  I can just hear it now– “I’m going to make your learning so sweet.  Pour a little sugar  . . .”  What do you think?

–Rebecca Morris


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