Why I Am Concerned About Learning

Curiosity, according to Laura Schulz of MIT, is fueled by having two ideas that are at odds with each other.  Her research shows that when this happens, children typically will explore and experiment until they figure things out. That’s my story too. Having two images of learning that disturbingly conflicted with each other has led to eight years of exploration—so far.

The first image was from interviews I conducted with children a few years ago as background for a study we were planning on children and learning. In my travels around the country, I interviewed groups of children from the third through the twelfth grades, asking them about their experiences in learning—at home, in their neighborhoods, in school, in church, anywhere. Despite the fact that these children came from very different backgrounds and communities—they told me very similar stories.

They described learning as “learning stuff”—as the acquisition of facts, figures, and concepts. The learning experiences they described were primarily imposed—and their motivation was primarily extrinsic rather than also being intrinsic.

I asked the children to finish this sentence: “It is important to learn so I can….”  And the children I interviewed all over the country said:

Get good grades.
Go to good schools.
Get a good job.
Support myself—have a good house—have a nice car.

Their reasons echo those of 81,499 students in a nationwide study conducted by the High School Survey of Youth Engagement from the University of Indiana. When asked why they go to school, 73% said because they want to get a degree and go to college, 69% said because of their friends, and 58% said because it’s the law.

These are valid reasons, but there’s a major problem, too. In the High School Survey, only 39% said they go to school to learn. Likewise, I heard little connection to learning in the children I interviewed. Even worse, I found that there was little, if any, fire in their eyes when they talked about learning.

So I pushed. I asked children to finish the sentence, “When I am learning, I feel….” Those few children who had experienced a broader connection to learning said things like:

When I’m learning I feel excited. You feel like the world is moving again.

Learning draws them in, makes them want more. One boy describes this experience:

It’s like going to an education buffet—you just want to keep going back for more and more.

Learning isn’t necessarily easy—nor should it be—but they say that the struggle is worth it:

When I’m learning, I feel proud, because I feel I’ve improved.

When I’m learning I feel like I have a future.

There is no question that there are learning problems in this country. We are all too familiar with the problem of dropout rates, but I was seeing a different  but equally disturbing kind of dropout. Young people aren’t just dropping out of school—far too many are dropping out of learning.

It is clear that our nation’s focus on performance (Race to the Top), on achievement and on testing does not necessarily mean that children are engaged in learning. This lack of engagement in learning is a huge problem for young people themselves, for their future employers and for our society as a whole.

The second image I had was a very different kind of image. It was an image of babies and young children. They are voracious learners, absolutely unrelenting, in their attempts to see, to touch, to understand, and to master everything. The fire in their eyes is burning brightly.

So I have spent eight years to try to reconcile these two images—of too many older children turned off to learning and of young children who can’t stop learning.  My question was: “what happens to that fire in children’s eyes and what can we do to rekindle that fire if it has dimmed?

Eight years ago, I and my colleagues at New Screen Concepts began interviewing and filming more than 85 leading researchers who focus on early childhood development and neuroscience and I have read more than a thousand studies.

From my immersion in child development and workforce research, I could see that a primary focus on educational content and information is neglecting the development of skills. I could also see that certain skills have the most powerful short-term and long-term effects on children’s development. And these became the focus of my inquiry, determining which skills have the most positive effects on children now and in the future. Ultimately, I identified seven skills, which I call life skills because of their powerful potential to help children thrive socially, emotionally, and intellectually. These are a different set of skills than others have proposed. They include such skills as focus, perspective taking and taking on challenges.

All of these life skills are based, in one way or another, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and involve what child development researchers call executive functions of the brain.  Some people don’t like the word “executive” because it conjures up an image of a boss in your brain ordering you around. However, think of executive brain functions as “managing,” not ordering. We use them to “manage” our attention, our emotions, and our behavior in order to reach our goals.

Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia believes that executive functions predict children’s successes as well as IQ tests do, because they go beyond what we know; they tap our abilities to use what we know. It has become clear to me that we won’t be able to effectively address the achievement gap in this country unless we help all children gain life skills.

What then can we then do to keep the fire in children’s eyes burning brightly, to keep them engaged in learning? My wish is that each of us does at least one thing each day to promote engaged learning in children. Whether we are a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, a teacher or principal, a friend or neighbor, or a community leader or a policy maker—if each of us does just one thing each day to promote engaged learning in the children in our lives, just think of what a difference it would make!


Photo/image by: V.v – Vee.vee / Flickr