"I hold that the aim of life is to find happiness, which means to find interest.
Education should be preparation for life."
A. S. Neill
Our behavior as infants and toddlers offers compelling evidence that we are born with a strong desire to learn. We pay close attention to the activities of those around us. We are eager to develop the ability to emulate the actions of others. During the first few years of life we acquire a considerable amount of knowledge and develop some very important skills. Among other things, we learn to walk, to feed ourselves, and to use language to communicate. Although we don’t often stop to consider it, these are significant accomplishments. Furthermore, barring severe physical or mental handicaps, all children master these skills.
In light of the excitement, satisfaction and joy that most children exhibit as they develop these faculties, it seems reasonable to say that we are born with a love of learning. Curiosity, the essential fuel of learning, seems to be part of our nature. Soon after we begin talking, we use our newly acquired language skills to ask our parents a seemingly endless stream of questions. We are consumed with curiosity and the attendant desire to satisfy that curiosity. During childhood most of us love to explore and experiment. We take delight in new experiences and are fearless and persistent in our self-initiated quests to develop skills and acquire knowledge. We want to learn as much as possible about ourselves and the world around us. We exhibit a strong desire to participate fully in life.
As we get older, many seem to lose this love of learning. There is a great deal of talk, especially among educators, about the importance of “life-long learning,” but for far too many adult members of our society, “learning” is limited to what they absorb by watching television and the typical viewing schedule does not include much of anything that could be described as “educational” programming. The loss of desire to learn about life, to increase one’s knowledge of the world around us, and to discover and develop our gifts and talents, is truly tragic, both for the individual and for our society. Lack of curiosity, a fear of change, and the absence of any serious attempt to engage in learning, are traits that reduce the quality of life in ways that the under-educated victims of our educational system and our culture cannot appreciate or even comprehend.
Some diminution of the motivation to learn may be natural and inevitable. Learning to walk, talk, and to feed ourselves, are skills that are necessary for survival independent of the care of others. The subsequent acquisition of other skills and knowledge is less essential. However, at least some of the loss of desire to learn seems to take place as a result of our experiences with school and schooling.
The presence of an element of play in many of the activities taking place in the classroom, combined with the natural curiosity of students, makes the first few years of the educational process reasonably enjoyable for most students. Eventually, however, the element of play gives way to academic work and the regimentation inherent in the structure of our educational institutions begins to take its toll. The toddlers who pepper their parents with an endless stream of questions turn into students whose only questions are: “Is this going to count as part of our grade?” “How many points is this worth?” and “Is this going to be on the test?” The most important question students ask — “Why do we need to know this?”— is often ignored, perhaps because the most honest answer in many cases is that students don’t really “need” to learn what is being taught.
It is difficult to find topics and activities that are of immediate interest to every student, even in a small class, let alone in a class of thirty or more. When a student feels like reading, it may be time for math. While some students are fascinated by reptiles, others aren’t. As a greater and greater portion of the school day is taken up with activities that fail to interest them, many students begin to lose their enthusiasm for school.
A struggle ensues between students and teachers, with teachers trying to get students to do their best, while students put forth no more effort than necessary to achieve results that will satisfy their parents and/or college admission officers. They skim chapters looking for the answers to review questions, rather than reading the entire chapter. They try to figure out what bits of knowledge are most likely to appear on a test, so that they won’t waste time learning material that will not be tested. They work very hard at giving “only the minimum to learning.”
Over the past twenty years, one of the principal strands of many reform efforts has been the introduction of alternative instructional methods and strategies. Cooperative learning, “hands-on” activities for “kinesthetic learners,” role-playing, simulations, and other alternatives to traditional instructional methods, may be helpful to students who don’t read well, may increase the percentage of students who are “actively engaged” in learning, and may make school less boring for students with no real interest in learning, but they are often little more than a vehicle for entertaining students, rather than attempting to educate them. This can be a very effective fallback strategy for a teacher facing a room full of students with no real interest in learning what is being taught, but achievement often suffers in the bargain. (Similar methods, along with team-building activities and “ice-breakers,” are often a part of professional development activities. Teachers are not immune to the siren song of entertainment, when the material being presented does not address their legitimate needs.)
A sizeable percentage of the students who are the intended beneficiaries of the deluge of standards and objectives that dominate instruction in our schools do not share the sense of urgency attached to their mastery by the authors and promoters of the various standards. Since students have no intrinsic motivation to learn much of what is being taught, we rely on a system of external rewards, primarily grades and diplomas, to persuade them to learn. The threat of being given failing grades or being denied a diploma is an integral part of this system. Students with limited academic abilities suffer real harm when our schools label them as “failures.” Some students are more motivated by grades than others, but eventually nearly all students come to view earning points and grades as the primary reason to do the work that is assigned in school. Even our most talented students eventually reach the point where they rarely put forth more effort than necessary to earn an “A.” We do a very poor job of nurturing an appreciation for the intrinsic value of being well-educated.
While some students may err in the direction of being too skeptical, much of the material they are expected to master does not relate to their immediate needs or interests. They seem to sense (accurately for the most part) that much of what they are being forced to learn will be of little utility to them outside of the class- room. Year-upon-year of learning, what other people think you should learn, instead of what you feel a need or desire to study, is very destructive. The diminished interest in learning that is clearly observable in older students is proof of this contention.