Updated: Mar 20, 2022
“I don’t think I have reached a plateau. I have just reached the level where I am today. But I need to go above it.” David Beckham
According to Lee Ross "Plateaus of learning are a characteristic feature of the learning process indicating a period where no improvement in performance is made". However, I believe that a plateau in learning is a tricky term that we need to be careful when using because it's impossible for anything to be completely static.
If you have ever tried to lose weight or if you have ever tried to learn a new sport or a new language, most probably, you experienced that dreaded state where despite all the hard work you put in, nothing seemed to be happening. I know because I have been in that place more than once. “Oh! I’ve plateaued”, is the first thing that comes to mind, and gradually the feeling of discouragement, boredom starts creeping in, unnoticed at first and more prominently, later on, we start to reduce the effort and a little later, we stop trying altogether and the decline starts. All the time, failing to see the truth that a plateau is only a term, it is a word that we use to describe a certain state, in itself it is neutral, it doesn’t determine what happens after it, it is how we choose to react and what we choose to do during this state is what determines our final results. Whenever I find myself in this undesirable place I have to remind myself that there is nothing constant, everything is in continuous motion, this is a law of nature.
If you ever feel that your student hit a plateau I invite you to look closely at the situation and assess it carefully and ask yourself the following two questions, you will most probably answer yes to one of them:
Is my student really not progressing at all or is it only a period of very slow progress compared to what we are used to and I’m thinking that this is a plateau?
Is my student going backward very slowly and unnoticeably while I’m thinking that this is a plateau?
Depending on the answer to the above questions, I carefully design my plan of action and start implementing it without delay to overcome plateaus.
Let’s say my answer is yes to the first question and my student is still in progress, but much slower than before, which makes it seem as if there is no progress at all; in other words, the progress is almost negligible. Then, it’s one of two:
There is something that my student or I or maybe both of us are doing that is not effective anymore:
My student probably passed beyond the novelty stage and is starting to get bored, maybe not putting in as much practice or effort as before, I need to diversify, change my style a bit, become more engaging, win my student’s enthusiasm and motivation back again, or it could be quite the opposite, I may need to set stricter rules, I’m too lenient, I need to involve the parent in the practicing process at home, and so on.
Let me tell you about Jackson and how we were able to successfully kick-start his learning after a discouraging plateau period. Jackson is an 8-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. He has both an excellent ear and a sense of rhythm. His mom is very hands-on and follows up very closely on his progress. He had been taking lessons for almost a year, able to read music, still with the help of color. He progressed really fast during the first year until progress seemed to slow down significantly. There was no lack of practice, however, he seemed to struggle a lot coordinating his hands. He rarely played with the correct fingers and seemed to always mix up his left hand and right hand. All of these factors combined slowed us down immensely. We couldn’t move in the same pace as before, taking us a long time to play the lessons well enough. I could feel Jackson starting to get frustrated and lose interest. I had to figure it out, I needed to change something that I was doing because it was obvious that he put in the required effort but unfortunately, nothing to show for it.
After talking to his mother, who explained about his dyspraxia diagnosis we decided to give a bigger chunk of the lesson to play scales, chords, and do more hand and finger exercises. Although dyspraxia is not a treatable condition, however, putting in all the extra work at the beginning of every lesson helped up move on a lot faster.
There is something brewing under the surface, this is a gestation period that is soon going to follow by a growth spurt and I’m being impatient.
If both my student and I are putting all that we have and still not seeing the progress we desire, then it could be happening under the surface, with more persistence and dedication we will be able to push through this seemingly stagnant place. We only need to hang in there for a little longer. Sometimes growth comes in spurts.
Let’s say my answer is yes to the second question and to my horror, my student is regressing:
This means that I allowed the slow progress state to stagnate for too long and now all the undesirables are creeping in (boredom, dissatisfaction, lowering self-esteem due to no progress, loss of motivation, and a feeling of total carelessness). A quick re-evaluation and action need to take place.
Typically, I would call the parents and discuss the situation, set new goals, a new plan of action. Obviously, what we were doing didn’t work and needs to change.
The key here is to find exactly the cause of the problem, which is not as easy as it seems but not impossible at the same time. A thorough assessment of the situation followed by a new plan usually is enough to take care of the problem.