Learning At Its Best – The Progress Principle

Posted on December 26, 2011


I just tried to teach my sister-in-law how to play the guitar.

She initially struggled, unable to get her fingers to conform to simple chords and make it sound right. So we backed off on that and just had her try to get a clean note on a single string. She was able to do that fairly effectively, but that was a little too easy, too boring to keep her engaged. Still the jump to chords was a little too much.

We eventually started to explore the major scale and she took off. She started making mental leaps without my help, exploring the fret board and listening to the sounds. Clearly we had hit upon something that was neither too easy or too hard, that was just challenging enough for her to make quick iterations with immediate feedback about the progress she was making. It looked exactly like she was trying to solve a puzzle. Figuring it out, making a few mistakes, but with enough feedback that she could correct her own mistakes easily enough. It was really quite fun to see her dive in to it to the point where she no longer needed help from anyone else (for a while at least).

This is the essence of “work” or “learning”. I use both those words together because I think there are a lot of parallels between the two and I think The Progress Principle describes the phenomenon and how it relates to the work environment very effectively.

We need to approach work and learning and education and management from the perspective of progress. Making progress is at the heart of motivation with all of these things. When you are producing creative work you won’t get burnt out if you are making steady progress. If you are learning something new then you won’t get burnt out if you are making steady progress. You will progress as fast as you can in both endeavors if you are making steady progress.

This is what we need to be focusing on. Creating the intrinsic motivation to produce our best work and improve ourselves through learning. We need to create both the work environments and the school environments where progress can flourish as effectively as possible.

The traditional classroom is terrible at this. It requires that everyone do the same thing at roughly the same pace. For some students this might be the correct pace to achieve progress, but for most it will either be too easy or too hard and that intrinsic motivation will die.

We need to step back from this specific environment and explore how to create better environments for facilitating progress. Already many schools (Montessori, Summerhill, etc) have created the environments effectively, but we are not talking about them at all when we debate the future of education. I have no idea why we are ignoring such an important aspect to such a monumental challenge.