The other day I walked into our carport only to discover my son, Ronan, stabbing my car’s engine with a stick through the grill at the front of the car. Before I could get mad at him, he looked at me and proudly stated, “I am fixing the car.” Only a few days earlier we had changed the oil together and now he was mimicking my efforts to the best of his ability so I popped the hood of the car and pulled up a stool so we could both get a good look at the engine. Not being the least bit mechanical I did my best to explain the parts of the engine. I could tell him where the fluids went such as oil and antifreeze. I could also name a few engine parts like the air filter, engine block, and spark plugs, but when he asked me how it worked, I could couldn’t give him a good answer. If I recall correctly, I simply told him that the car engine converted the energy from the gas into forward momentum. We poked around the engine a little bit longer and then moved on to something else.
A few hours later, I realized that my understanding of engines wasn’t sufficient, when Ronan suggested we watch a movie about how an engine works. My son is only three and he could already see through my lack of understanding on the topic. And, since we had used short educational clips from the internet to answer a few of his previous questions, he figured that it could explain the engine to him better than I could. I pulled up a short clip from You Tube that explained the internal combustion engine and we watched it together a couple of times. By the end of the second time, he still didn’t really understand it, but I did.
It is amazing how many aspects of daily life we accept without genuine understanding. I don’t think that I am ready to rebuild an engine now, after watching a movie, but, I can at least grasp how an engine translates the energy from gas through the pistons and to the tires. The entire experience reminded me how much I enjoy learning new things and how natural this desire is to children.
We all naturally enjoy learning.
Now one would think that, as a teacher, I would be reminded of this fact every day while at work, since I am surrounded by students who are being taught. However, that is not the case. In fact, I would argue that most students do not demonstrate their desire to learn while at school very often. They complain about their classes, assignments, and the content they are being taught on a regular basis. It is a far cry from my son’s fascination with everything new. The more I think about how unenjoyeable learning has become for the youth enrolled in school, the more depressed I become with the system in which I work.
In order to do something about it, our school district has undertaken personalized learning blocks at the high school level and I have the privilege of teaching one this term. As it is an experiment, the district wanted the classes to stay small and the teacher to a have high level of autonomy. I went around asking specific students if they would be interested in choosing what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. Unbelievably, there were not a lot of interested individuals. The students who I was able to persuade had experienced genuine success outside of school and were willing to try to translate those experiences to the classroom. For example, a boy who is an expert biker decided to publish a magazine about his biking experiences. He is writing articles that might appear in a BMX magazine about himself and accompanying them with pictures of himself. He will also include a book review about a novel he feels all riders should read. We are planning to cover all the learning outcomes of English ten through the magazine.
After he was sold on the idea, I was able to convince a few more that it was a good idea. I now have several planning to publish a magazine about themselves in a specific area of their life. Once the idea was conveyed and we had brainstormed ideas about how to proceed, I simply stood back and let them go. I have hardly made any comments in class and they come to class focused and determined to work on something that is important to them. It has become one of the easiest courses I have ever taught because I stand back and let them learn what they want and when they want it. Our school district deserves credit for taking a risk and trying to tap into a child’s love of learning.
Why are students, who are obviously uninterested in normal school, not excited about having genuine autonomy over their own learning? What happens in school between the age of five, when children are enthralled by learning, and thirteen when they dread it? Do teenagers not love learning or has school/society suppressed their desire to learn? If teenagers do not love learning, why are they so willing to learn outside of school in extracurricular activities?
Through high school I was not interested in learning what was being taught, but I was convinced that I needed to graduate in order to have a half decent life. So I completed high school, but learned very little. Much like my students today, I had a a minimalist approach at all times. Despite being capable of good marks I did just enough to get by. I could spend countless hours playing and thinking about sports but never read for pleasure or tried to learn what was being taught. I used my short term memory to get by on tests and promptly forgot the material. As per learning on my own, I lost my desire to read (that I had possessed as a child) by the time I finished high school. Luckily, I went by myself to college in Vancouver where I didn’t know anybody and couldn’t continue to throw myself into sport. I was so bored that I went to the library and picked up a book to read. I haven’t stopped reading since. It turns out that I like learning and probably always did, but that desire was suppressed through my teenage years.
School told me what I should learn and when I should learn it. And when the bell went I was supposed to stop learning that subject and start learning another. I had no control of the process or the content and thus i just went along for the ride. Rather than having an internal motivation to learn that was driven by the sheer joy of it, I was motivated by the diploma and thus only did enough to get it. At no point did I think that I should remember what I was learning: because I didn’t have to remember it to accomplish my goal. And besides, since I was being told what I should learn, I didn’t really see its relevance to my life. Our schools are filled with students like me. We have told them that they should work hard in school so that they can graduate. Understandably, they believe us. Over time this external goal undermines their innate desire to learn; the suppression of such a powerful motivator results in teenagers who forget that they enjoy learning.
We plan to home school so that we can foster the love of learning by pursuing the current interests of all family members. We will honour our children’s curiosity by exploring their questions with them and providing a depth of answer that will produce more questions. By allowing them to choose what they learn we will never have to convince them of the information’s relevance because it came from within themselves. We will show them that learning is more important than short term memorization. We will involve them in all facets of family life so that they will know the importance of reading, writing, and math on a daily basis.
I do not know that we will be able to keep our children curious through their teenage years by homeschooling, but I do think that our approach will make it more likely than the current school systems approach. But the fact that school districts are exploring a personalized learning approach bodes well for the system’s future, if we can find an effective way to implement it on a large scale.