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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Building a Better Brain With Video Games

Parents and teachers have been bemoaning the ill-effects of video games for decades. Now we know they were wrong all along.

If you haven’t read the emerging research, you might want to take a look. Dr., Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, wrote about it last week in a great article in Psychology Today. Popular business and education blogger Penelope Trunk has discussed it often.  A google search of “positive effects of video games” turns up numerous articles written in reputable publications, such as Forbes, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and a host of other news magazines, education periodicals, and psychology journals.

None of this surprises me. My kids play video games so I know what they are. I blog about education so I know how children learn. There’s a direct correlation between the two.

In all fairness, it’s been only recently that neuroscience has delivered proof about how the brain learns. Instead of conjecture, sophisticated imaging techniques now show how the brain changes and grows when learning occurs. Scientists can physically observe and measure neural pathways expanding as people learn new things.

Still, could parents and teachers not have figured this out for themselves? When children enter the video game world they are involved in and interacting with quickly changing parameters and dynamics. They must assess situations, make quick decisions, use a variety of senses, and constantly be forming and testing new ideas and strategies.

Why is anyone surprised that all the current research—almost every shred of it—shows the affects of video games to be almost entirely positive?

Please allow me to take a crack at that answer. For the past 100 years, we’ve allowed traditional educators and the politicians who support them to control the discussion about learning. Even educational studies and research have been set up to try to validate a certain style of instruction. It’s a type of rationalization that cognitive scientists call “motivated reasoning.” The purpose is to legitimize an educational system that can be easily administered by the 3+ million people who make a living off of it.

Parents and the general public have been hoodwinked, but it happened with our eyes wide open. We (parents) have applied our own style of “motivated reasoning” to feel good about sending our children off to school for 12 years of their lives, which provides us with an easy and relatively cheap way of raising and teaching our kids. We try not to think too much about how horribly ineffective schools are as a place for proper living and learning. If we don’t think about it, or read about it, or study it, or listen to people who know what they are talking about, then we don’t have to embrace what we all know to be true: Formal education yields way too little results for such a big investment of time, while real-time learning with purpose is not only efficient in the moment, but effective in the long-term.

Last year, my 16-year-old daughter, Roxanna, hit a wall in her studies and in her personal life. She was taking a couple of academic classes outside the home, as well as trying to keep up with a busy activity schedule.

She needed to take a step back. So we cut out some activities and dropped the classes. In fact, for a couple of months, she just relaxed.

During that time, Roxanna took up Minecraft. She played it every day, sometimes for hours on end. I didn’t know that much about it, so I started watching her. Here’s what I learned:

Kids don’t just play Minecraft. They create it. And then they manipulate it. Decision making, problem solving, strategy forming—it’s all there. And it’s individualized to skills and interests and even customizable for parents and teachers should they want to jump in the fray. You can read about the benefits or Minecraft here and here and here and here. And all over the Internet, if you care to look.

As I sat watching my daughter play Minecraft, it occurred to me that she was involved in far more real and lasting learning than what she had given up by dropping her academic classes. She may not be able to define certain words or describe certain processes — things that would probably be long forgotten before she was ever asked to regurgitate the information— but her brain was growing and her “executive function” (the management and execution of cognitive processes) along with it. Score one for the video game revolution!

As video game research becomes more prominent and indisputable, look for schools to jump on the bandwagon and begin to employ video games to teach in the classroom. But don’t be fooled yet again. If schools use video games simply to teach the same old formal school lessons and deliver on the same old content-laden, scholastic goals (as demanded by Common Core and the other political educational directives of the moment), all the intrinsic value of video gaming will be lost. If the emphasis is simply on content delivery, video games will be no more effective than a glossy textbook or an educational board game.

Video games are best when they are open ended, player directed, and focused on stimulating thought and creativity. This is the stuff from which brains are built. Narrowing the scope or defining the mission destroys the intellectual benefit.

So, tomorrow, when your homeschooled kids roll out of bed and tackle a new day of life and learning, turn on the television and set up the game console. Effective brain building and learning awaits!

Until next time…Be fearless.

Caring for Children In Our Nation’s Schools Is About A Lot More Than Just Proper Socialization And Test Scores

Recently I was at a small holiday party when a longtime friend of mine, a teacher at a public high school, made a statement that turned every head in the room.

Towards me.

My friend said, “I really feel no child should be homeschooled in high school. All kids should go to high school because all kids need to get used to being around different kinds of people.”

Since everyone in the room knew I homeschool my children through their high school years, they all looked at me to see what my response would be. I guess they thought there might be an argument.

There wasn’t.

I simply said we would agree to disagree. And the holiday festivities continued.

But, of course, I have not forgotten the remark. It rankled. And not just because it seemed to be an attack on the choices I’ve made. The remark illustrated much of what is wrong with traditional schools. That is:

Schools and teachers are often driven by sweeping gestures and grand statements that have no relevance to the needs of individual children and families. They place academic, cultural, and behavioral ultimatums on every student, no matter how unnecessary or inappropriate for any specific child at any given time.

Indeed, the situation that precipitated my friend’s negative remark about high school homeschooling was just the sort of thing that should never be addressed strictly by one single idea, rule or school policy.  You see, my school teacher friend had a student in her high school class whose mother was thinking about homeschooling her. The 16-year-old student, a quiet and diligent student who had never caused the school one moment of trouble, had recently been expelled for bringing a knife to school. Because she was suicidal. Because she was being bullied. Rather than have the child face placement in an alternative school with an ugly reputation, the mom was considering the homeschooling option.

THIS was the scenario that caused my friend, a public high school teacher for 25+ years, to slam homeschooling for all high school students under all circumstances. Even when a child is being bullied. Even when a child is suicidal. Even when a child is facing the probability of placement in an alternative school filled with chronic rule-breakers and troublemakers.

In that moment, the schism between private parent and professional teacher never seemed wider to me. Parents could care less about the school’s idea of “proper socialization” when their children are sad and suffering at school. Parents prioritize concerns and they put their children’s safety and well-being at the top of the list. They are sad when their children are sad and alarmed when they are bullied and threatening suicide.

Is it really too much to ask that school teachers—the people who care for our children the majority of their days—spare us the platitudes and set aside their politically-correct agendas when a child’s health and welfare are at stake? If they can’t, the crisis in America’s schools is a lot worse than just a bunch of bored and unmotivated kids and a string of declining test scores.

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

Avoiding American Education’s Spectrum of “Normal”

Jerry Seinfield caused quite a stir last week when he publicly stated his belief he operates on the autism spectrum. I’m glad he “came out.” I hope it starts a discussion about what’s really “normal” in regards to human behavior.

In education, we have children functioning on lots of different “spectrums.” We have spectrums for autism, Asperger’s syndrome, hyperactivity, attention deficit, learning disabled (LD), behavior disabled (BD), and many more. We fuss over these kids, worry incessantly about them, accommodate them, and spend millions of dollars trying to help them. But there’s a larger, much more important question that looms:

What in the world are we going to do with all the millions of kids who function on the “normal” spectrum?

Because THESE are the kids we should be worrying about.

I’m talking about the kids who spend six hours sitting in desks at schools every day and never lose focus or feel hyperactive. Kids who love coloring in lines and filling in tiny boxes…and don’t mind it. The kids who do everything schools tell them to do and never ask questions. I’m talking about the kids who never try to beat the system. Or avoid it. Or change it.

These kids worry me.

Our version of “normal” behavior is based on the 20th century view of what it takes to be a good student in a formal, academic setting. We desire and reward children who can march in lockstep to the school drummer and we label and medicate children who can’t. Or won’t.

This all worked out very nicely in past generations because our world economies demanded workers who could follow directions and find meaning in carrying out low-level, very-defined tasks. These people served as the “cogs” and “”circuits” of work now completed by sophisticated machines and computers. Schools prepared children very nicely for that world.

But, in the 21st century, advanced robotics and computer applications have replaced human cogs and circuits. Now the world needs innovators and thinkers, brilliant dreamers who can create new ways of living and working in the world and astute and clever leaders who can sort though and apply all the ideas the creators generate.

“Proficiency” and “excellence,” qualities that schools love and reward, need to be replaced by “imagination” and “genius,” qualities that schools see as abnormal, the byproducts of people who are either very gifted or very “different.” The truth is, ingenuity and brilliance are very normal qualities of people who have been created in the perfect image of a masterful and incomparable God. These qualities are on the “God spectrum.”

What a shame we spend 12 years of a child’s life renaming and redefining “normal” within the context of facilitating an organized and orderly school environment. I’m not worried about all the abnormal kids in this environment. I’m worried about the “normal” ones.

Until next time…Be fearless.