Building Skills

Mastering New Skills

by Scott Lutostanski

Imagine someone who has never been stand up paddle boarding before. She decides she wants to give it a try. She heads down to Brittingham Boathouse and rents a stand up paddle board. The first time she gives it a shot, it is an entirely new skill that she is learning. She is experiencing the different components of stand up paddleboarding: how to kneel, paddle, stand up, turn, and slow down. With each minute she spends on the board, the experience of paddling the board moves further away from a new, novel experience and closer to a more rote, duplicatable movement. The second time she rents a board, she has the feel down. She knows how to balance on the water, and it becomes much easier. But this second time, it’s a much windier day, and the water is much rougher. She needs to learn yet another new skill: the ability to balance and paddle through rougher, choppier waters. After an hour of practice out on the water, this is now added to her skillset. The third time out, something new happens. She falls off the board for the first time. She now has to learn how to get back on a board and reestablish herself to keep paddling. Again, a new skill is learned. She falls off two more times that day, requiring her to continue to practice getting on the board in deep water. By the end of the day, although she is soaking wet, she has this skill mastered. These new skills have become old news for her.

This is how our brain works. The frontal lobe is responsible for managing our actions, decision-making, goal-directed behaviors, and regulating our emotions. In this regard, the newer the experience, or skill needed, the more work our frontal lobe has to do. New experiences require more information processing, decision making, and attention in order to learn and work towards mastery. This is even more true the more complex a new experience becomes. It puts even more exertion on our frontal lobe. As we continue to practice and develop a skill, our frontal lobe becomes less and less involved as the skill becomes more rote. The skill morphs from a novel experience to learned skill.

In the previous example, I used a physical skill, stand up paddle boarding (SUP). However, in an academic setting, students constantly face new and challenging tasks that require learning new skills. The organization, time management, planning, note taking, studying, and writing skills that students need require attention, practice, and development just like any physical skill. As in the SUP example, each day brought a new wrinkle and skill to learn that required more work. School is the same way. If a high school student has written a couple papers, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the writing process down. Each assignment varies and puts pressure on students to learn new skills.

These new and complex skills can put a lot of demand on a student’s frontal lobe. It is easy to see how students can be overwhelmed. Not only is the frontal lobe tasked with learning a new skill, let’s say writing a 5 page research paper with 3 sources, but it is also responsible for planning,  regulating emotions, processing large amounts of information, and decision making. It is easy to see how this can lead students to crash, hit a wall, avoid schoolwork, or to turn to any other coping mechanism they may use.

The key is to treat these skills just like stand up paddleboarding. Each executive functioning skill needs to specifically focused on. The goal is to take the difficult and challenging and practice to the point where it becomes rote and autonomic. The difficulty is that it can be a process to see changes in organization, planning, time management, and the other executive function skills. Stand up paddle boarding can be learned in an hour or two. EF skills take consistent practice in order to develop. Each student needs to understand the extra difficulty new skills present, the process towards building them up, and how it relates to them on a personal level.