Learning is as Simple as Finding Ways to Do What You Really Want To Do

One of the ideas I often explore on this blog is the curious adult notion that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood.

The average American will spend almost 12,000 hours of their childhood in school, not counting homework. Many will also go to pre-school. Most will go to college. And, all along the way, parents will beg their children to do things they don’t want to do or need to do as preparation for some vague and inexplicable future goal of adulthood.

Even as a young child this frustrated me. At six-years-old, I thought I was already a master of learning. I could communicate in one of the most difficult languages in the world — English. I could count well enough to buy all the candy that interested me at the gas station. I could follow enough rules to get along at home and church. I had figured out how to make friends (in the neighborhood) and influence people (my parents). And I hadn’t even started school yet.

Oh, yes, learning was easy: It was as simple as finding a way to do all the things I really wanted to do.

This is the essence and motivation of learning. It does not happen in a vacuum. If you get hungry, you find food. If you need to get somewhere, you find your way. If you get lost, you find your way back. It’s really that simple. Or maybe it’s hard. But if you really want or need something to happen, you find a way to get it done.

The problem is that adults see childhood learning not as mastering moments, but practicing for the future. They think children need to learn the map before they even have a place to go.

That might be a nice plan if it were even possible. It’s not. Too many destinations.

It might be an interesting pursuit, if it worked. It doesn’t. Too little childhood motivation.

Forcing people to memorize maps with no destination in mind is about as effective as forcing children to learn things in school when they don’t understand the point.

When my oldest son, Zac, was little, he asked my husband and I a deep question: “What’s softer,” he asked, “cotton candy or God?”

Adults think questions like these are cute. “Ha. Ha. That’s funny. Now stop day dreaming and learn your alphabet.”

We (adults) interrupt childhood and all the wonderful real learning and discovery that happens there to start preparing children for a future they can’t envision. When this process proves difficult, we do what all American parents do: we FORCE learning out of them.

At five years old, we sent our son, Zac, to kindergarten, where he worked on one new letter of the alphabet each week. After four weeks, we got an email from the teacher saying Zac couldn’t remember the name or the sounds of the letters they had worked on and could we please work with him at home.

Concerned parents that we were, of course we did what the teacher asked. Drill, drill, drill, regurgitate, regurgitate, regurgitate. Night after long night.

And Zac learned the four letters. Success!

Or was it? By the beginning of October of his kindergarten year, Zac hated school. He hated it so much he cried every morning, even on the day the class was slated to take a field trip to a local pumpkin patch. By Christmas, our family was meeting with a counselor to assist Zac with increasing school-related anxiety.

Here’s the truth about forced learning. It works. The child might hate it and the teachers and parents might too, but, if you work a child hard enough and drill him long enough, he will eventually be able to repeat back almost everything you want him to know.

Anybody can learn the alphabet this way. Anybody. Sit a child down and show him a flashcard of the letter “A.” Then say, “this letter is an A.” Lay the flashcard down and then immediately pick it back up again. “What is this letter?” If he’s forgotten, you might have to remind him. But repeat the flashcard process until he remembers the name of the letter. And he WILL eventually remember it.

Until he forgets it again. Which, in that case, means you start the memory process over again. This is how we teach children in schools. It may look different in some places and at some ages, but it’s basically the same all over, even in college: Learn stuff you don’t want to learn until you forget it. Then learn it again.

We don’t teach children. We condition them.

But, you ask, “Don’t children need to learn to do things they don’t like to do?” Or “Left to their own devices, won’t children choose to do nothing and never learn anything?”

Not at all. As children mature, they are increasingly able to understand the long-term benefits of any given decision and adjust their short-term actions accordingly, even in academics. If they really want to sing the alphabet song, they work hard to learn their letters. If they really want to read, they work hard to learn their sounds. Desire and need are the fuel of success and learning. Children and adults alike learn what they need to learn in order to do what they want to do.

This is “the grind” of life. People do the hard things in the short-term if they want the long-term results bad enough. For young children, school is all grind with no obvious payoff. This is why school takes so long to accomplish so little.

Recently we had a cable guy at our house installing a new cable box. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and the guy entered carrying a huge “Gulp” drink from a convenience store. He had to go outside twice to take a smoke. He seemed indifferent when we noticed things weren’t working quite right. Finally, I shooed him on his way.

I know nothing about cable systems. I know less about electronics. But I know this: I wanted my cable system to work a lot more than the cable guy wanted my system to work. That put me at a distinct advantage over the expert. I sent the cable guy packing so I could get to work on understanding and solving the problem myself.

Never underestimate the potential of a person on a mission. Never overestimate a person who is not. Most children in school are on YOUR mission. You might as well get out the flashcards right now because the only way children are going to learn something of YOUR choosing is if you drill it in to them. But, if you wait until children are old enough to see and understand the need, they will learn it quickly and easily on their own terms. They will not need a childhood of flashcards, drill, and review to get it done.

After our disastrous school experience with our first child, we decided to delay formal academics with our second, especially the reading process. The results were startlingly effective. In fact, we didn’t have to teach our second child, Kelsey, to read at all. There came a point at about age 7 where Kelsey decided she wanted to be able to read all the beautiful and interesting books in our home. So she taught herself how to do it using a very natural approach commonly referred to as “whole language.” 

Learning to read is like all learning: Children learn what they want to learn in order to do what they want to do. 

Until next time…be fearless.

 

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The Way Learning is Supposed to Happen (At the Point of Need)

This past week my college-aged son, Jesse, had a doozy of a week. He had two major tests and a large presentation he had to fit in along with a multitude of other on and off-campus responsibilities. In the thick of it all, he called me and asked if I could help him study for one of the tests.

I was a little surprised to get the call, but also pleased that I could help. I immediately cleared my schedule that evening and waited for my son to make the 20-minute trek home to study.

As it turned out, Jesse needed help with his Business Law class. I’m not strong on “business,” but I’m pretty good with “law.” So Jesse pulled out a study guide for his test and we went over it together. There were two things that stood out to me about this study session:

First, it surprised me how little Jesse knew about basic governmental law and function. Given that I was Jesse’s homeschool teacher, I could have felt bad about that, but I refused to. I’m pretty sure I made an effort to teach these basic notions, but Jesse simply didn’t pick them up.

But the second thing that surprised me was far more significant (and positive): At 21 years of age and with a difficult test staring him in the face, Jesse could learn at lightening speed. Within an hour, Jesse had mastered the information on the study guide, understood it, and could apply it. He then promptly fixed himself a snack, thanked me, and hurried out the door.

Lest you think Jesse really didn’t have that much to learn in that hour, let me assure you he did. The first question in his study guide concerned the U.S. Constitution and Jesse knew little about it.  The second question mentioned the “balance of power” among the “three branches of government” and Jesse had never heard of either. When I used words like “judiciary,” “executive,” and “legislative” to describe the three branches, he looked at me with blank stares. Each term had to be broken down and further explained. We pretty much had to start from scratch when it came to understanding basic governmental function. Only after he mastered the basics could he move on to the more complex Business Law principles addressed in the study guide.

But what would have taken a long time to learn in fourth grade (the grade when the these concepts are typically introduced) took just a few minutes for a 21-year-old. Not only that, but Jesse immediately understood the principles involved and was able to apply them. By the end of our one-hour study time together, Jesse could explain the different facets of complicated business law cases. He could predict the outcomes of those cases based on precedent and case law. And he could identify the different schools of jurisprudence utilized by various judges and attorneys.

This brings home a point I have long made: People—both children and adults—learn best (and maybe only) when they need and want to learn.

Forcing children to struggle with complicated subjects like the balance of powers and constitutional law when they are 10 years old makes no sense at all. There is no interest and no ability to understand something so distantly related to the life of a child. Even memorization at this age is more difficult than it is later on.

Education would be far more simple and beneficial if we let children learn at their own pace and as they encounter the need for learning. It’s funny, but my kids don’t have any trouble figuring out how to work any of our home electronics. They surf the Internet and manage social media like pros. Complicated computer gaming is a snap. They learn these things because they either want or need to. They retain the learning because they utilize it every day.

This is exactly how learning works in the real world. I remember my daughter’s first day on the job in a professional position following her college graduation. Kelsey came home in a panic saying her college classes in graphic design had not prepared her for the expectations of her graphic design job. She was being asked to make decisions and do things she didn’t know anything about. So what did she do? That night, her first night on the job, she desperately called a man from our church who worked in the same industry and pelted him with questions. The next day she returned to work armed with a plan.

I have lots of mantras in my homeschool. One of them is this: “Why do something hard today when you can do it easy tomorrow?”

In other words, don’t spend long hours forcing children to learn things they can easily (and better) learn later on. It’s not wise to frustrate children this way and it’s not smart to waste their time either. If the subject matter is difficult and you are having to teach and re-teach, set it aside. The time is not right.

Some teachers get this concept and will delay learning for awhile, but they get nervous as high school graduation nears . So they re-tackle difficult and unnecessary subject matter. They are worried about “holes” and “gaps” in education, fretting about what will happen if they miss teaching something that will come up later.

Well, here’s what will happen: Your children will do what Jesse and Kelsey did. They will figure it out for themselves.

They may have to do a little extra work. They may have to stay up a little later studying for a test or preparing for a work project. They may even have to call you, or another family member or friend, and ask for help. But they WILL figure it out because now, and only now, they HAVE to. That need ensures success like your random school lessons never could.

Until next time…be fearless.