Friday, December 5, 2008

Does the "80% Commandment" Hold True in a Homeschool Setting?

Insomnia again, sigh. The silver lining is that I've got the chance to catch up on interesting posts from around the blogosphere.

One of these was on the "Kitchen Table Math" blog entitled "The 80% Commandment". It discusses a quote from a 1999 book by Elaine McEwan-Adkins and Mary Damer called Managing Unmanageable Students: Practical Solutions for Administrators. The quote is this:
"The relationship between students’ accuracy with schoolwork and their subsequent behavior is described by the 80% Commandment: 'Thou shall not expect a student to do a learning task when he or she does not have the skills to complete the task with 80% success. Otherwise, that student will either act out or tune out.' Today’s frustrated students who lack basic skills most often respond by acting out."
The author of the KTM post, Catherine Johnson, agrees wholeheartedly with McEwan-Adkins & Damer about the 80% Commandment and believes it's the reason why her students are struggling.

I tend to agree with this statement as it applies to a traditional classroom setting with 20-30+ students. But I wonder how applicable it is in a homeschool, where the child spends much of his/her time working one-on-one with the teacher.

I have definitely noticed that my DD will become frustrated if the task she's being asked to do is way over her head. At the same time, however, I want her to be challenged by her schoolwork and to stretch herself beyond her comfort level. That's the only way she'll grow in what she's capable of doing.

I'm not convinced that 80% is the optimal challenge level in a homeschool setting. If she's getting 4 out of 5 of them right all on her own, that seems to me like the task is too easy. I'd say that the challenge level I'm aiming for is more in the 1/2 to 2/3 range. Hard but not so difficult that she just gives up in frustration. Then I provide the "scaffolding" (to use the term associated with Vygotsky's work) that enables her to get to the point where she can complete the task herself with 80-90% accuracy. Once she can do that, I increase the challenge level again and the process repeats itself.

Because I'm only working with a single student, I'm able to do a lot more in the way of scaffolding than a traditional classroom teacher could. I can also devote as much time to a particular topic as she needs before we move on.

Last year we spent almost an entire month on one math topic that the curriculum we use is designed to cover in a few days (telling time to the nearest 5 minutes). She was having difficulty with the concept that each of the twelve numbers on the clock represents a different number (i.e. 5 representing 25 past the hour). That requires some pretty advanced thinking for a then-5 year old. But I kept working on it with her, and eventually the light bulb went on in her head.

I guess it's not so much the general principle of the 80% Commandment that I question, just the specific challenge level that was chosen. I'm curious to hear what other homeschoolers think- what do you consider as the optimal challenge level for your student? For those of you are homeschooling multiple children, do you find it varies from child to child?


Henry Cate said...

With one-on-one tutoring students may be able to learn when the student can only complete a smaller amount, like 60% or 70%. But in general I think students do better when they are being stretched in little baby steps, rather than having to struggle to understand a lot of new material all at once.

christinemm said...

I think that entire notion is flawed as it is applied to a class of kids in school. I question the entire theory.

In a class if a student needs help and is not getting a concept early in the class/lesson they may tune out and turn off, close down their thinking and just shut down. Yet that child didn't reach the 80% point yet, if the issue arises in the first moments of the lesson.

Not being able to get immediate extra help or clarification in a class can further frustrate kids. Not only is the teacher not always able to help every kid immediately due to the nature of the lesson or teacher:student ratio (they can't stop at every single point to help every student, sometimes help is given at the end of the lesson). Sometimes the lesson will explain more if the child just sits and listens through to the end. But some shut down before that out of frustration.

I think a lot has to do with personality, temperament, the child's standards for themselves (high expections of themselves and they get mad at themselves if learning doesn't come easy). That all applies to HS kids too.

Kids in a class also have a group dynamic going on, those who want to save face by not asking a question, and so forth. They may not get a concept but won't ask about it.

I think that the sheer boredom of school work causes acting out. As does the decrease in recess time and other breaks from the doldrum routine.

Kirsten said...

I've heard the 80% number before in different contexts. Maybe those show how you can use it.

In the Pimsleur self-education method for learning foreign languages, you are supposed to go to the next step when you get 80% of the review questions right. At that point, you will master more material by going to the next step than by attempting to achieve perfection on that step. You have, however, mastered that step well enough to use it to build on.

It is said that "the first 80% of the work requires 20% of the effort. The last 20% of the work requires 80% of the effort." So if the effort to get the first 80% is too great, you don't want to try the last 20% (if you have the option), due to the potential for extreme frustration.

I have two suggestions. If your child is a perfectionist and is getting 80% or more correct, the child has learned the material sufficiently to use it. That might mean that you should be working on the difficult last 20% and that would be the stretch for your child.

If your child is content with his or her knowledge and yet is getting less than 80% correct, you will need to plan a review for that material in the near future. In the case of math, you may need to examine his or her work for computational mistakes (rather than conceptual mistakes) that are bringing down the average.

This is all theory. I haven't tried to figure out correctness when teaching my child.