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The Joy of Overlearning, by Heather Rader

Over applying concepts is part of the learning process

It happens every year. I show my third graders how to use the apostrophe and within a week – there are apostrophes EVERYWHERE! When this happened during my first years of teaching, I kept wondering where I had gone wrong. Eventually, I understood that overlearning is actually an important step in the learning process.

Having empathy.
When an alarmed parent came to me about her son's math homework, I was able to pass on the concept of overlearning. As I looked over his paper, I explained to her that I had just taught the concept of regrouping and that her conscientious son was applying the concept to single digit problems. I modeled a statement for her to try with her son, "I see you are doing something new with numbers. Now I want to show you where that works." This way she was not negating his process, but redirecting it.

How to combat overlearning.
So besides being empathetic, how do you combat overlearning in the classroom? With the use of apostrophes I'll announce, "Today we're going to look at how to use apostrophes in our writing." After we look at many examples of how apostrophes are used correctly, I issue words of caution. "Now every year I have kids who put apostrophes all over the place, but they are only needed in special cases." We review those special cases, and then I use my students' own writing in mini-lessons. Together we determine when the apostrophe is used correctly and when it's not. The incorrect use of apostrophes supports them best as they edit their own writing.

Avoiding the pitfalls.
The same approach to overlearning can be applied to any subject. By knowing ahead of time some of the pitfalls of a new strategy, you can issue words of caution and help students analyze their thinking process. To help students with regrouping, I begin by giving them an incorrect use of applying this concept:

Bobby does this example: 23 + 15 = 48 Do you agree with Bobby? Why or why not?

In the beginning, students will say, "I don't agree because I got 38," but I keep asking questions to prompt their thinking. Soon someone articulates that Bobby regrouped when it wasn't necessary. Afterwards, while the kids work independently, if I see them making a "Bobby error" I say, "I got a different answer. How did you get yours?" In their explanation, they'll say, "Oh" and thus have corrected their own overlearning.

So when a child shows you papers with a spree of exclamation marks, numbers unnecessarily regrouped or every sentence in a paragraph indented, take a deep breath and remember the joy of overlearning.

Heather Rader teaches at Meadows Elementary in Washington and is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and teaching.