How to deal with new and unfamiliar situations

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“Progress, far from consisting of change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

This quote from Spanish poet and essayist George Santayana perfectly encapsulates the eighth Habit of Mind – applying past knowledge to new situations. After all, what is the good of learning something, if a student cannot use what he has learned and apply it to a new problem? If we have to reinvent the wheel every time, how will progress be possible?

The problem is that learning from past mistakes or past learning is not as instinctive for some learners. Here are a few ways you can help your child start using what he’s already learned to solve new problems:

Model the behaviour
Explain what you are doing in terms of what you have done before. Narrate your actions as you troubleshoot problems or tackle household chores.

“Let’s see, we are eating spaghetti for dinner tonight and I need to figure out how much pasta to cook. The last time we had spaghetti, I cooked the whole 500g box for our family of four and had leftovers. Maybe we should cook a little less this time.”

Journal with your child
Another way to encourage the self-reflection needed to successfully learn from past challenges or mistakes is to show your child the thinking process, step by step.

Try this activity together with your child: Think about a difficult time for you that you wish you could have tackled differently. Draw a timeline of events that led up to the problem, and then recount what happened after. Reflect on what you have learned from the experience.

Recently, I spent the day at the beach and got sunburned. It had been a hot, sunny day, and I forgot to pack a hat, sunblock or umbrella. The sunburn hurt and made me miserable for a few days. Next time, I should remember to check the forecast, and pack the right clothing and accessories for the trip. Also, I should be conscious of how long I spend in the sun, and perhaps leave earlier than planned if I show signs of too much sun exposure.

Ask the right questions
Use prompts to help your child consciously think about prior learning to solve a new problem at hand. Consider asking “what do you remember about insert topic” or “when have you seen a problem like this before?”. Or help your child brainstorm new problem-solving methods that build on previous learning by asking him to “tell me what you know about insert topic”, even if it may not appear to be relevant at first. Only when your child becomes comfortable with what he already knows, can he then work on using that information elsewhere.

Read with your child
Another way to help your child learn how to build on prior experience is by reading. Reading can help in many ways – the act of reading itself requires building on past knowledge by integrating what the new reading material offers. When reading to your child, get in the habit of relating the book topic to a previous experience. Encourage your child to make predictions about the book, then and read it to find out more. At the end of the story, ask your child about his past experiences that relate to the story to further build links between new and past information.

For more book ideas, try this comprehensive list from the Nashville public library. Early independent readers might also enjoy reading Doug Cushman’s Inspector Hopper series – each mini story teaches logical thinking and shows how Inspector Hopper and his assistant McBugg solve mysteries by using clues that they find.


This is part eight of a 16-part series on Habits of Mind. Follow the series here.

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