Push zone

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Definition

Optimum push zone is a range of minimum outside pressure that makes the child develop better than without external influences. For example, competition with other children may encourage harder work. Naturally, external pressure may also result in regression. Progress may also occur at levels of pressure that are greater than necessary to achieve the same level of improvement. The push zone is defined on long-term outcomes, which are very different from short-term outcomes.

Optimal push zone in education
Optimal push zone in education

Figure: Optimum push zone (in blue) is the range of external pressure that is likely to improve learning outcomes. If the pressure increases beyond the push zone, the learning outcomes decrease. At some point, instead of more learning, pressure will result in less learning (regress zone in black). Schooling results in increased tolerance for coercion via learned helplessness (in green). It also decreases the learning outcomes and increases the required level of coercion. Note the similarity of the coercion function to the hormesis function

Push zone at school

The optimum push zone is usually far narrower than it is popularly assumed. The whole system of coercive education exerts pressures that go wildly beyond the optimum in most cases. This comes from the illusion of progress created by short-term outcomes. Excessive pressure slows down long-term development of children or results in regression in comparison to what would be achieved without schooling. Pressure is the key factor that explains why kids hate school.

Focus on short-term outcomes in schooling results in pressures extending well beyond the optimum push zone

Zone of proximal development

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) was defined by Vygotski as the optimum guidance zone in which a student can master harder material or skills with a degree of guidance from a tutor. Zone of proximal development is often discussed in education. It may fit classroom situations, however, it does not extend into self-directed learning.

My main problem with the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is that for a healthy brain given enough time, ZPD should be zero. ZPD makes sense in a classroom, in limited time. However, in self-directed learning, where time can be stretched due to self-pacing, ZPD is less relevant. With access to the web, we have nearly all important human resources available at fingertips. Only time and the capacity of the human brain form the limits.

Vygotsky was interested in what a tutor can do. I am interested in what a child can do on her own. In this book, instead of Zone of proximal development (ZPD), I use the term: the optimum push zone, or simply the push zone.

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) is defined on the space of positive forces (helping guidance), while the push zone is defined on the space of predominantly negative forces (coercion and distraction). Zone of proximal development (ZPD) shows what learning steps can be undertaken in teaching, while the push zone reflects expected learning outcomes under a degree of pressure (with or without tutoring).

ZPD focuses on immediate outcomes, while the push zone focuses on long-term outcomes. In ZPD, we investigate the impact of help and guidance, while in the push zone, we look at external pressure affecting self-directed trajectory. This pressure does not need to involve help in learning. However, it should affect the expected trajectory outcome as predicted by "the pusher". For example, putting a time limit on gaming or TV time would be a form of external pressure that may match the optimum push zone. Naturally, external pressure works best if it happens in a framework of mutual consent.

Push zone and coercion

Throughout this book, I depict the dangers of coercion in learning. The existence of the push zone is not an indication that coercion is valuable. When a parent pressures a kid to take on learning by means of persuasion, it is also a push that is not coercive. As long as the kid can back off or ignore the pressure, it will not count as coercion.

Moreover, the pressure is not supposed to push the kid into learning and to sustain learning. The most useful and frequently employed form of pressure might move a kid from one high learntropy area to another high learntropy area. Transition to higher learntropy through a trough of displeasure is obviously beneficial. For example, a kid might move from a shooting videogame to an educational videogame. A less obvious approach might be a move to lower learntropy with predicted better long-term outcomes, e.g. move from a videogame to reading a book. There are risks involved. We may always have an impression that a book is better than a videogame, but the true assessment comes not from the content of the book or game, but from kid's own interaction with the learning material. Learntropy determines the actual flow of knowledge and there are many invisible factors and forces that can easily be misjudged externally.

The push should transfer a kid from one area of high learntropy to another area of high learntropy. It should not push the kid into unpleasant learning!

Comfort zone

When there is little pressure or distraction, a student may operate in a comfort zone, in which she predominantly develops on her own using self-paced and self-directed learning. Depending on the child, the subject domain, and the environment, the comfort zone may bring fantastic outcomes (e.g. when pursuing an ambitious passion or hobby) or a developmental regression (e.g. in various form of dependence, e.g videogames, social media, peers, etc.). For many kids, development in the comfort zone is ruined by environmental distractions (e.g. difficult situation at home). Most of kids attending school quickly regress to a point where operations in the comfort zone lead to little or no progress. In that sense, external pressures can shift the push zone in the direction where more pressure is needed to obtain positive outcomes. In extreme cases, the child may regress via learned helplessness into a total loss of the learn drive. This is the main underlying cause for which kids hate school.

Regress zone

Regress zone is where the pressure brought in by the tutor will have an overall negative impact on development. Regress zone is particularly extensive in small children. Early academic instruction may backfire in the long term even if it is not highly coercive. This is why early school age is harmful.

Regress zone may bring some short-term positive outcomes, e.g. passing a test, but it will produce a negative number on the overall development benchmark whichever way it is defined by or for the student. Depending on the degree of pressure exerted on the student within the regress zone, it may produce a mild slowdown, e.g. an increase in a dislike for learning, or dramatic results such as stress, neuronal death, psychiatric disorders, suicide, and the like.

The importance of differentiating the push zone from the ZPD comes from the fact that the optima set by ZPD may bring long-term regress. In other words, a child can progress in a short term, e.g. by mastering a skill, and regress in a long term by conditioning a dislike for learning, e.g. in the domain of the learned skill. For example, we can send a kid to a music school, employ ZPD, observe a fantastic progression of skills, and still end up with a disappointing outcome in which the kid loses her passion for music.

Many tools used in schooling tend to operate in the regress zone despite providing an illusion of progress by employing short-term benchmarks. Those tools include: homework, cramming, testing, grades, threats, bribes, coercion, compulsory reading set, etc.

One of the greatest dangers of teaching is the illusion in which positive short-term effects obscure negative long-term outcomes

The optimum push

If we take the axis of influence from negative to positive infinity as defined for any type of external pressure, the optimum push zone will lie between the comfort zone, with some overlap, and the regress zone. The part of the curve with positive outcomes will be divided into two portions: the optimum push zone, and the zone of progress where the same outcomes are achieved at higher pressure.

Metaphorically speaking, on the axis of proximal development, we see a progression of a child from bored to confused. On the axis of external pressure, we will see a U-shaped curve of development outcomes with the best results registered at the pressure matching the optimum push zone.

Long-term learning outcomes define the boundaries:

  • retrogress zone: distractive pressure reduces learning (e.g. pressure to help parents, to get a job, to participate in crime, to take part in war, etc.)
  • comfort zone: usually minor to huge progress, depending on the personality, environment, and knowledge. Regress is hardly possible in healthy kids in healthy environments with few distractions. We have been programmed by evolution to grow continually. This is at least well pronounced at younger ages before a possible degree of saturation sets in
  • push zone: produces positive outcomes compared with the comfort zone. There is a dramatic increase in value at little pressure (high return on low investment of teaching, tutoring, mentoring, etc.). The optimum usually falls at very low levels of pressure (might be much higher for some kids). There is a quick decline in development speed in the zone where adding pressure diminishes outcomes. The optimum push zone is richest in the sense of accomplishment, and provides for a cumulative increase in enthusiasm, passion, interest, and knowledge. This is the zone that marks the best brain growth
  • regress zone: too much pressure results in regress. The pressure may have a form of the stress of schooling, cram schools, excess homework, parental blackmail, anger, etc. The end result is stress, bad sleep, bad health, frustration, hating school, hating learning, hating a subject, hating the world, or hating oneself

Zone changes

The delineations and sizes of the zones change in time. In each child, the optimum push zone will differ for different tasks and different contexts. Over time, the zone may change for the same child, the same task and, the same context. In particular, the context of home, free democratic school, or a typical school will redefine the zone.

Learning expands knowledge, which improves outcomes in the comfort zone. It may also affect the extent and outcomes in the push zone.

The comfort zone may regress in size in adverse circumstances. The regress zone may contract the push zone. For example, a child operating in conditions of school stress may develop an aversion to learning that will produce more dramatic reactions to all forms of external pressure. In a similar fashion, the comfort zone may shrink. On school-free days, the kid may compensate limits on freedom by losing itself in videogames. Via learned helplessness, the regress zone may also expand the optimum push zone by changing pain boundaries, however, it may also stunt the outcomes. This is why schooling still brings positive effects for an average child. Where regressive pressure might do damage at first, it gradually induces learning apathy, and kids forced to go through the motions of schooling will still register some knowledge and pass basic test benchmarks. Those benchmarks are always set way below a child's true potential (for example, see: Schools are useless in teaching English)

Failed school optimization

Participants of the school systems are poorly aware of the existence of the optimum push zone, and the push response curve. The optimization of schooling based on coercion in learning systematically fails to take into account he fact that the curve keeps changing shape in response to coercion. This fact is often unknown even to people who are aware of the benefits of unschooling.

In conditions of freedom, the increase in fresh well-branched knowledge amplifies the learn drive. In return, the brain can find a greater variety of learning options and the overall learntropy of the environment increases. As a result, all new learning suggestions, which may form coercive micro-pushes, will need to compete with a larger array of valued alternatives. As a result, the extent of the optimum push zone will systematically shrink. Quite early in the development, the optimum size of the push zone may be so tiny that the only safe estimate is zero, and the only safe strategy is no coercion at all (see: Optimization of behavioral spaces in development).

Analogously, coercion above the optimum push will have a negative effect on the learn drive, and will have net negative impact on learning in the regress zone. This phenomenon leads to a blind-alley optimization in school systems. The greater the pressure today, the greater the pressure required tomorrow. This shows up in the evolution of the pressure toolset with the age of students, as well as the multi-decade evolution of the school system itself. The coercive pressure in on-line learning during the time of pandemic reached it all time global peak leading to a new record level of dissatisfaction with the school system among the youth.

Some educators who would want to see more freedom in the school system suggest an incremental approach. Allegedly, by granting just a bit of freedom, we can observe the effect and retract in case things do not progress well. Unfortunately, reducing the pressure without providing for extended time needed for the recovery of the learn drive may easily backfire. Students given more freedom, use the freedom to escape the areas of greatest pain, which is usually cause by trouble with areas of "high priority" in school learning. Hence the myth: teenagers are lazy.

School metrics cannot be used to quantify the value of freedom

When unschoolers try to convince well-schooled people about the value of unschooling, they are thwarted by the detox period, i.e. the time in which a well-schooled mind needs to recover its natural learn drive to show the power of freedom. This instant effect of pressure is treasured at school. At the same time slow and hard-to-measure power of free learning is unintuitive. This is why Well-schooled people do not understand free learning. In addition, the detox period may never be fully effective. 100 bad habits learned at school affect an individual for life. Some bad habits are very difficult to change

Correcting development trajectory

The optimum nudge in the push zone will not only depend on the marginal effect on development. It can also be helpful in overcoming an acceleration threshold, where a small penalty can lead to a wider space of potential acceleration. For example, a kid may be reluctant to switch from a typical computer game to an educational computer game. The latter may require a switch, or a switch and some introductory learning. By guiding the child over the little area of discomfort, further acceleration becomes easy.

It is always safer to operate in the push zone close to the comfort zone. The difference in pressure between the push zone and the regress zone may be hard to measure. For example, the kid may agree to do extra homework today, but he will be less likely to do more work over a longer period (e.g. months). In the end, minor over-correction will reduce the long-term outcome.

All forms of pressure get registered as long-term memories. Repeated pressure works along the principles of spaced repetition. Small errors will get magnified if they get repeated. This is how the hate of learning develops. This is how toxic memories get entrenched. This is why all forms of over-correction must be compensated with long "resting periods" to let forgetting do its clean up job. This is why all erroneous forays into the regress zone bear the extra cost of recovery in the comfort zone. Kids who switch from a standard school to a democratic school often need long periods of "detox" to become self-reliant and creative again.

Changes to push zone with age

As kids grow older, their personality changes and the inner world gets more complex in proportion to the impact of life adversities. This makes all forms of external optimization harder. The push zone may shrink for kids who grow to love self-determination. The perceived optimum push zone will also shrink due to the complexity of interactions. In other words, the older the kid, the less pushing is needed or welcome. This marks a gradual transition from a child to a free-minded adult. However, intense schooling may have the opposite effect. Teens who have lived a life determined by instructions from others, lose their own initiative. They need to be pushed. This is how schooling can shift the entire optimum push zone in the direction of high pressure. The need to push may keep growing from year to year. Through unceasing coercion, we shift children from curiosity powered by the learn drive, to learned helplessness and apathy. The most extreme outcomes of that transition are depression, addictions, and even suicide.

The unceasing pressure of schooling may result in a constant need to increase pressure to achieve the same outcomes

Complexities of influence

Here are some departures from the simple push zone formula:

  • it can be multi-dimensional for the development domain. For example, a push for math may be less effective than push for geography
  • it can be multi-dimensional for the push vector. For example, mom can be a better pusher than dad
  • function shape may change in all dimensions and over time. In most extreme cases, there may be no optimum push zone as all pushes will produce a negative outcome. For example, a kid may be driven into desperation in which she dreams of the world without parents, teachers, or peers
  • optimum development may be achieved with an optimum pull similar to the mechanics of ZPD. For example, instead of exerting pressure, a parent may offer help in doing homework. This usually is not a good idea as it may undermine kid's self-reliance, however, the actual long-term effect depends on the child's state of mind

The simple model of the push zone can be greatly interfered with by parents, school, environment, health, and personality traits. Under pressure of schooling, kids can easily unravel into more complex behaviors where a whole constellation of emotions makes reactions difficult to predict. Even one day's sleep deficit can make a world of difference. Sometimes, when the outcome is unsure, the kid would probably be best left to her own devices for a while.

Predictability of a push

In many circumstances, it is impossible to predict the exact effects of a push.

There are still two chief lessons from the model:

  • the push zone can be microscopic. It requires extreme caution. The smarter the kid, the more assertive the kid, the smaller the zone
  • employment of the concept requires a good understanding of a particular child. This job can be hard even for an attentive parent. It verges onto impossible in a class of twenty, esp. with a large rotation of teachers who never have much time to get to know individual kids

Push zone: examples

This book discusses a number of learning situations that apply to different push zones. Some examples:

  • Sudbury Valley School is a good demonstration that for a subset of kids, operating in the comfort zone with no pushing may produce fantastic results. The outcomes may or may not be optimum, however, there is no school like a school with happy kids.
  • kids in cram schools may show excellent results in the standardized testing, but may operate in the regress zone with negative impact on their long-term development. They may be great in math today, and still make for a poor programmer two decades later
  • the case of Arian shows how a change of school can instantly throw a kid from the comfort zone to the regress zone with dramatic consequences
  • the case of Simon shows that school and coercive parenting can result in a lifetime declaration to never engage in learning (ever!)
  • my own change of schools took the impact of school from the retrogress zone to the optimum push zone within days
  • I experienced a distraction retrogress in my fights for dominance in primary school
  • my interest in programming and in SuperMemo helped me drag myself from a regress zone of boring college to the optimum push zone where self-directed development was accelerated by a dose of external pressure. Instead of losing brain cells and sleep over the study of electronic circuits, I was able to focus on programming, research, and SuperMemo, while being constantly nudged to acceleration by the need to pass exam benchmarks (see: My school tried to block the best thing in my life)
  • what happens today to kids in war-torn Syria is the prime example of the extreme retrogress in conditions of toxic stress. The impact of war on learning can extend over generations

Minimum pressure, maximum outcome

The sizes of the push zones may differ wildly. The healthier the kid, the smarter the kid, the smaller the push zone. Teachers are required to be even-handed, and cannot set different rules for different kids. If they push too hard, they may do more harm than good. If they push too little, some needy kids may stop developing. If they find the optimum for the class, slower kids and the creative types will suffer.

The key to my reasoning throughout this book is that the cost of pushing can be microscopic (e.g. relative to the size of government investment in education). Kids are equipped with a natural learn drive. They are wired to learn and explore. They are innately curious. Their personality and environment are essential though. Some will need more pushing and those forces may need to increase over time. Others will show the exact opposite. They will welcome some assistance at younger ages and then they will display their "rage to master" that will power further development. It is the kids that enter the rage to master zone that will change the future of this planet! One of the prime goals of education systems is to NOT stand in their way.

My own story

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I tried hard and cannot recall a single case where a significant push beyond my comfort zone brought any long-term benefits to my life. In How I invented perfect schooling?, I write about enjoying passing exams. There is always a degree of discomfort in such a system. It is never truly perfect. However, I voluntarily joined the system, I self-imposed the learning, and I had a significant say in the curriculum. In that period, the biggest coercive push I received was in the area of control theory.

I consider control theory highly important, however, at the time (1986), it was programming that was to change my life. Delays in programming would mean delays in SuperMemo which would mean delays in learning across the board. I also objected to the choice of material and the methods of lecturing.

My teacher disagreed, and I was forced to take on the subject. Despite the importance of the subject, it is pretty easy to see that if all my teachers took this stance, there would be no SuperMemo. I hardly had time to write it despite all granted freedoms. I did not fully realize the monumental importance of programming then. However, deep in my knowledge valuation network, some hints and intuition pushed me in the right direction. The direction that has changed my life. This text would not have been written if all teachers had been pushing equally hard as my control theory teacher. He was right, control theory is essential for my work and understanding of the brain. However, I was right-er! My investment in programming paid back better. It paid better by an order of magnitude. Additionally, my teacher admitted that computers were better suited to solve my complex control theory problems than his symbolic methods.

Control theory is central to my work. It is central to this book. Was my course at the university helpful? I still recall a few concepts I learned during the lectures. However, I would get to that field anyway. My interest in the brain and in optimization would make it inevitable. At the same time, there is still a bit of bad taste when I revisit certain subjects. It is a bit like coming back to an abusive home. There is always some unpleasant trepidation about an experience that should otherwise be positive.

Sadly, the teaching methods, the classes, the lectures, the textbooks were not that good. I passed the exam. In my rebellion, I even resorted to cheating (possibly the only case in my whole life). During the exam, I was writing off solutions from Krzysztof Biedalak's sheet. The same Biedalak who is now CEO of SuperMemo World. He was always a bit more conscientious. That's why he is a CEO. I was always more rebellious. This is why I write these words.

Conclusion: I was never significantly pushed beyond my comfort zone with memorable long-term benefits!