I hated math most of my school years. I’m not talking about a little dislike for the subject. I’m talking about hatred that motivated elaborate schemes to prevent or avoid it altogether. I used to fight my Mom until one of us was almost in tears. I would say, “When am I ever going to use this? This is so boring!”
Have you ever heard anything like this from your school aged children? If you have, don’t freak out. It’s more common that it is rare. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Kids are inherently curious and active learners. The whole 4-5 years prior to entering formal classrooms is spent learning. Children seek out learning and are constantly doing all kinds of experiments, some more destructive than constructive. Nevertheless, they are inquisitive and interested in the world around them and how to navigate it.
As a newborn, they search our faces and the room around them to learn who to trust and how to get the things they need and want.
By age one, they instinctively, with obsessive fervor, watch and practice basic body coordination and learn how to communicate effectively with the world around them.
In their second year of life they learn how to feed themselves. The sheer amount of words they learn and practice in their second and third years is astounding.
They begin to master these skills with greater independence by the time they are four, and they begin to ask over and over again, “Why? Why? Why?” They take things apart and put them back together.
In the years before our kids enter formal education they learn incredible amounts of information and even apply it to their lives. They do it all with astonishing excitement and motivation. They do all of this without any formal education, worksheets or class time.
So why is it that so many kids that have sought out and loved learning independently up until their school years, all of a sudden “hate school”?
Why do they lose the fire?
So what happens? Why do they often go from excited and knowledge seeking to bored and knowledge avoiding? The answer is that we sit them down in chairs and tell them what they should care about.
We’re always trying to entice kids to care about things that are completely irrelevant to them. We try to incentivize them with bribes or grades rather than simply appealing to all the reasons they want to learn. We hand them a worksheet and say, “Here, write down all the right answers, give it back to me so that I can judge and critique your work. Then if it measures up to my standards I’ll give you a gold star!” Problem is, they don’t know why they are doing the work sheet in the first place, other than we said so. And besides that, they could generally care less about the gold star.
The reason I hated math when I was little was because I could not see the value in it. I didn’t care. The incredible thing is that later in my education I took a science class and a statistics class that required more difficult math than I had ever done in my life. But I did it and I did it well because it was applied. It was taught in the context of a larger problem that I actually cared about. Math became valuable because I needed it to solve problems that I wanted to solve.
A great question to ask
Someone recently asked Seth Godin what he thinks we can do to teach kids to be independent learners and thinkers. His response struck me as very wise. He said that when our kids come home from school with a report card that has two A’s, three B’s, one C and a D, instead of quickly responding with, “You’re a better student than that! You need to get those C’s and D’s up.” Or responding by simply praising the A’s and B’s, we could say, “Wow, it looks like you really enjoy those specific classes you got A’s and B’s in. What is it about those classes that excites you? What have you been doing in those classes that has led to success and excellence?” After we understand what it is that is driving them, we can help them to duplicate that success in other areas or to better direct their own learning process.
The problem is that to change the way we approach school, education and learning as parents and educators often takes a perceptual change on our part. It requires us to let go a little and let them lead and that can be scary.
How to re-ignite their educational fire.
The main message here is that we re-ignite the excited, self-learner in them when we give them back the torch!
The answer to motivating learning in our kids is to put their learning back in their hands. The most important thing in inspiring learning is to truly understand what they care about and adapt their learning to that. That doesn’t mean that everything about their education has to change necessarily. It simply means that we gently help them bridge the gap between what they care about and what school is trying to teach them.
Daniel Pink suggests that the 3 major components of human motivation, learning and performance are autonomy, mastery and purpose.
1. Autonomy: Give them some freedom to explore and discover for themselves. We home school our children. In their education, the principle of autonomy means that they have a very significant role to play in selecting things they want to learn about and freedom to explore those topics. In a traditional public or school setting, we can still encourage this by helping them see sub-topics or applications that might interest them. Identify things that they want to know and brainstorm ways for them to learn more about that thing.
2. Mastery: Allow them to define excellence and encourage them to reach for that personal excellence. Look for things they work hard at and are really good at. All of our children are at different levels of ability. For example, my children were learning about Pre-American history and wanted to build ships that resembled those of the early explorers. My 8 year old, 6 year old, 4 year old and 2 year old all made a ship, but the level of skill and detail demonstrated varied significantly with each age. Each of them learned and sought to apply their knowledge to something excellent.
3. Purpose: Find out what excites them and what they care about. Highlight how specific topics fulfill that purpose. My kids love Legos and we have encouraged them to make and save their own money to buy their own Lego sets. In doing so they have to learn about how to work and save. They also had to learn how to count money, add, and subtract. When we teach math concepts, we can draw on experiences with saving and spending on Legos. They can see the practicality and purpose of the skill. If we really spend time getting to know what their dreams are and what gives them purpose, we know how to make learning exciting again.
That doesn’t mean that all subjects aren’t going to be difficult or that children don’t have to learn basic subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic simply because they aren’t passionate about them. These things are essential foundations to all other learning. It simply means that kids will generally learn with far greater enthusiasm when the lessons are applied in ways that are purposeful to them, are mastery driven, and allow them freedom to explore in the process. So let’s go apply these TRU principles of motivation to encourage our children and re-light their educational fire!
What things are exciting to your kids? What are they really good at? When they don’t have to be doing anything, what do they gravitate toward?