From the moment we’re born, and even before , we are learning. Why then do so many of our kids learn to hate school? As an educator, I do not believe it has to be this way. I do believe that approaching instruction with a “Theory Y” approach , trusting that students have existing motivations to learn, can make learning environments more effective by making them:
Engaging, Challenging, Personal, Available, and Continuing.
Learning Should be Engaging
I use the term “engaging” hesitantly because I fear it is too often associated with gimmicks or strategies to trick the learner into learning. At best, this approach will yield only short-term results.
Many parents have seen the limitations of this approach when feeding a young child. If the child spits out or refuses to eat their peas, what is a parent to do but attempt to hide the pea in the child’s applesauce? If this works, it is easy to think the problem is solved–the child is eating their peas! But what has the child actually learned? For some, just repackaging the pea in with something they like may be enough to get past the initial resistance to change and help them to like–or at least tolerate–peas. However, for others, what the pea-in-applesauce approach teaches is that peas are so gross they need to be hidden. Then, as more vegetables are hidden, the child may learn that in fact all vegetables are gross. Or perhaps the child will learn that applesauce can no longer be trusted. Do we not often see the same with, for instance, math?
Just like all children are motivated to eat–if only what they view as the “good stuff”–so all students are motivated to learn. They’re motivated to learn Minecraft, to ride a bike, to build a go-kart, to bake a cake. Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can use the pea-in-applesauce method and swap in a Minecraft example into a math story problem. For a few, this might help them make the connection between something they love and something they don’t understand. However, for others, it can just further reinforce the perception that math is hard or something they just cannot understand even if it is adapted to them.
I believe it is more effective to look for–or guide the student look for–connections to build on to what they already know . While it can look similar at first glance, finding authentic connections–for example,
- pointing out to a student playing Minecraft that they are using a graph,
- explaining that how center of gravity makes it possible to ride a bike,
- taking measurements and drawing up plans for a go-kart, or
- scaling recipe measurements to make twice as much cake–
will build on the student’s existing knowledge to help them gain understanding of the topic. This of course does not replace pedagogy, but it can certainly enhance pedagogy and make it more effective.
Learning Should be Challenging
Just as believing students are motivated to learn leads to making learning engaging, so believing students are capable of learning leads to challenging them. Dweck calls this the growth vs. the fixed mindset . If we know that students are able to learn, we can and should teach so that students are being stretched enough that authentic learning is happening but not so much that it is demoralizing.
Caution must be exercised here, though; challenging the student continually without recognizing and celebrating achievement can also lead toward a fixed mindset. I believe the best outcome is one where the student needs to work hard to succeed, does succeed, and then is empowered and encouraged to continue working hard and succeeding.
Learning Should be Personal
While I would not advocate abolishing all educational goals and standards, our current education practices and systems often seem to be better designed to produce robots than humans . Perhaps the prime example of this, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even increased segregation based on ethnicity and income .
Rather than celebrating diversity in learning styles and bents, our system still has arbitrarily determined standards and labels anyone who dares deviate:
- Can’t sit still and focus on school for 6 hours? ADHD
- Too focused on one or a few things but not others? Autism
- Ethnic minority? Low income? At risk
While I don’t discount that there are real mental health issues–in fact, I am in treatment for some now–many of these classifications are used as ways to separate out segments for treatment rather than changing how we educate. We know more than ever about different learning styles and approaches, yet the overwhelming majority of students are still educated the same way.
It was for this reason primarily that my wife and I chose to home school our children. This allows for learning to be more personal, more effective, and more interactive. Obviously, home schooling is not practical for every family, but we need to reversing the trend for education decisions to be made at higher and higher levels of government will allow instruction to be more tailored to a state’s/community’s/classroom’s/student’s specific needs rather than completing a federal government spreadsheet.
Learning Should be Available
Also, as control has moved more national, opportunities for the most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased . Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). I believe moving control more local will also help decision makers to more easily identify and address problems with educational access.
Further, I believe that technology is changing and will continue to change the paradigms. Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher as a gatekeeper of information may eventually go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information will grow more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.
Learning Should be Continuing
If learning is engaging, challenging, and personal, and available, I believe it follows that learning will be continuing as well. When we assume that students want to learn and focus on removing roadblocks to learning, the result will be a continual cycle of learning; it will just become a way of life because, well, it’s fun!