top of page
  • by Blaine Helwig

Learning and Growth – In Small Chunks

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

About 30 years ago, I read a short book called, “The One Minute Manager” by Kenneth Blanchard. I was intrigued at the author’s Shamu reference – a 1 ton killer whale at SeaWorld. Back then, Shamu performed an amazing act. The killer whale would vertically swim out of the water very fast and clear a horizontally suspended wire about 20 feet from the water’s surface – and splash back into the water, much to the delight of the onlookers.

The book’s author asked readers of “The One Minute Manager” the following question, “How did Shamu accomplish this 'learned' feat?”

Did SeaWorld employees horizontally position the wire 20 feet off the water’s surface, and suddenly without training, Shamu vertically jettisoned upward out of the water clearing the wire for a small fish reward?

Of course not.

The wire was most likely first positioned under the water’s surface – probably around 10 feet or so. If Shamu swam above the wire, there was a fish reward forthcoming. If Shamu swam below the wire, no fish reward. Subsequently, after Shamu discovered the correlation between swimming or jumping above the wire and the halibut treat, the wire was discretely raised short distances upward. After the wire was raised each time, if Shamu swam above the wire, a reward was offered - and no fish was provided if Shamu swam under the wire. Not too complicated.

I have lifted weights at the gym for nearly 35 years – off and on. Sometimes more consistently than others. In any gym, the dumbbells (i.e. small handheld weights) are of staggered sizes starting at 2.5 pounds and increasing by small increments to 100 pounds. For example, there is a 20 pound dumbbell weight, a 22.5 pound dumbbell, 25 pound dumbbell, 30 pound dumbbell weight, etc. A similar weight sequencing is used in free weight lifting with circular metal plates positioned on each end of a horizontal bar in bench pressing, squats, dead lifting or military presses.

Why are the dumbbells in a gym structured in discrete mass/weight differences?

For the same reason the horizontal wire is discretely raised each time Shamu successfully accomplished his ‘high jump’ water routine at specific heights of the horizontal wire. Starting with too much weight too quickly and the task is exceedingly difficult to accomplish. Gains must be made slowly and discretely. Once a dumbbell is mastered at a specific weight, a little more weight is added – until mastered, then the process repeats – exactly as was the horizontal wire was systematically raised at SeaWorld.

Learning and Growth in the Classroom – Small Chunks at a Time Works

Successful teachers discover that the lessons must be presented and mastered in small, discrete chunks to produce student outcomes. When teaching and structure is not done in this manner, the child becomes frustrated at the lack of progress – and unfortunately, they often quit working at the task.

For example,

A student is tasked with memorizing and demonstrating mastery of 100 mixed single digit math facts in multiplication. So, the teacher gives the child a 100 mixed single digit multiplication daily assessment each school day for two weeks. The child consistently scores between 20 and 35 correct. Full Stop! Time for reflection.

It is too much weight on the bar for the student. Some fixed amount of weight must come off the bar. Break the skill down in increments. Start with the 100 problems of only 1’s (e.g. 1 x 3, 6 x 1, 0 x 1) until mastered, and then and only then, proceed to the 2’s (e.g. 4 x 2, 2 x 9, 7 x 2), and so forth. When the child slowly builds up and completes the 9’s, they are much more prepared at this point for the original 100 mixed single digits. The student will begin to score higher and higher – the teacher should note specific math facts the child struggles and concentrate on those multiplication facts in isolation. It will work! The child will be successful, and the teacher guides the student for task completion.

The second that a child is struggling on a task and unable to complete it after a sufficient number of repetitions – Think Shamu! It is time to break the task down to discrete parts. Slowly build-up the process for task success. Guide and encourage the child to clear the academic bar.

There is an absolute certainty in public education. If a one ton killer whale can be trained to vertically jump 20 feet out of the water and clear a horizontal wire, then human beings can successfully master math facts and any other elementary academic skills in a similar discrete methodology.


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page