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Losing and Finding the Joy of Learning

August 4, 2011

A message of peace from one child to another

I’ve spent this past week teaching arts & crafts to a group of rambunctious kids between the ages of 3 and 11 for the VBS program at my church. This summer, I was in charge of teaching the kids how to make felted soap and helping them decorate canvas bags for school kits to send to children in need. I’m used to working with adult (or near-adult) students, so I was struck by how different it is to teach such a young age group.

The kids I worked with this week are an energetic bunch. For the most part, they got to choose which crafts they did when, so there was a lot of running around and bouncing from group to group. While most of the kids took instruction pretty well, some of them were highly distractable, and I definitely had my hands full with a few (I’m probably going to have nightmares about blue fabric paint handprints and glitter for the next month or so). But nearly all of the kids were excited and enthusiastic about doing the crafts and helping out other kids in the process.

This Thursday afternoon, I went directly from the program to a meeting for work to plan presentations that I and a few of my co-workers are going to give at an upcoming training workshop. I’m going to present on methods for getting students engaged in the study groups that are a required part of their classes at these levels. It’s very common to encounter students who are bored and frustrated, students who have never learned how to be active participants in their own learning and who just don’t understand the point of going to study group. The contrast between the enthusiasm of the young kids I worked with this week and the resistance of many of the adult students I work with the rest of the year is startling.

Of course, it’s probably more exciting to play with fabric paints than to learn about how to write an essay or how to think critically about a short story, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. I’ve heard many stories from students about their experiences in secondary education, and the bulk of those stories are not positive. Most of the students I’ve heard from went through middle school and high school being taught not how to think and engage their minds in the world around them, not how to develop as human beings, and not even how to apply skills that will be useful to them in life, but rather being coached in how to pass a test. Very few of them found any joy in rote memorization and regurgitation of facts or in practicing the best strategies to narrow down the most likely option in a multiple choice question. I can’t really blame them when they take a dim view of education when students are punished for active learning and encouragement to use critical thinking is treated as if it were a threat of violence (thanks to Barbara Ganias for the link).

The truth is that the young kids who infected me with their excitement this week enjoy learning because they haven’t been taught not to yet. Hopefully they never will receive the lesson so many others already have that education is a chore, but it’s up to us now to rebuild an educational system that brings joy back into learning instead of focusing on test results and churning out assembly-line “perfect students.” I don’t work much with the younger students who are just beginning to frame their ideas of what learning and education mean, but I hope I can do something to reach out to the adult students who have an opportunity to rediscover the joy of learning.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 11:13 pm

    Unfortunately those children probably will be caught in the trap of what education is now. I was pretty much on the borderline of all that, so I got bits of both methods of education and I am capable of thinking for myself and expressing my own opinions, but I bet that people only one or two years younger than me are not.
    Since my mom was a teacher, and highly involved in the union and everything I heard a lot about it. My mom has frequently said that the younger teachers now don’t even really know how to teach because they’re taught to teach to the standards and follow a script. In a few years when that system finally collapses these teachers are gonna have to go back to school to learn how to really teach.
    Also, random side note: I told my mom that she needs to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it totally deals with this situation. Since she’s retired she has no excuse not to read the rest of the HP books. (She’s only read the first one).

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      August 4, 2011 11:35 pm

      I would guess that having a teacher as a parent has probably contributed to your ability to think critically. While my dad was not a teacher professionally, he definitely had the heart of a teacher, and I learned how to learn and how to enjoy learning from him more than from any of my teachers in school I pretty much escaped NCLB, but the kind of thinking that lead to it was already in place while I was in school, and there was a big focus on testing to the exclusion of thinking well in advance of how things are now.

  2. August 4, 2011 11:21 pm

    Also, that felted soap thing looks really cool.

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      August 12, 2011 4:08 am

      You should try it! It’s often possible to find felting wool at craft stores, and I know I’ve seen some at the Joann’s near my place.

  3. August 5, 2011 12:24 am

    Spare a thought for those of us who share your view of education and who work in the UK. We have had a national curriculum which was starting to focus on the skills and joy of learning that you understand so well but our current government is driving education back to fact based education. It’s easy to measure facts, it’s hard to quantify joy and creativity.

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      August 5, 2011 12:31 am

      I’m not very familiar with the state of the educational system in the UK, but I get the impression from those of my students who come from other countries that the emphasis on testing is quite a widespread problem. It’s what we get for thinking of students as numbers instead of people.

  4. August 5, 2011 11:16 pm

    Hooray for YOUR enthusiasm! Thanks for sharing!

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      August 12, 2011 2:43 am

      You should see how enthusiastic I am when I’m on the bus at 7:30 in the morning. :-p

  5. August 7, 2011 6:30 am

    Anita — I bet the kids LOVED the felted soap! By the time my middle school students get to me, many of them are jaded (that’s also part of being a 13 or 14 year old). And I know, by working with this wonderful age, that a love of learning can be sparked at any age — especially when there are dedicated people working to ignite that spark. The students you work with are lucky to have your enthusiasm and drive. There are loads of educators trying to work that magic into their classrooms across this country and trying to restructure NCLB. Until that happens, it comes down to one teacher in one classroom (or one study group), trying to make a difference.

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      August 12, 2011 4:06 am

      When I think about how much needs to happen on a structural level to improve the situation with NCLB, it all seems very daunting. But it helps to remember that I have the opportunity to help people as I come across them as individuals.

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