Currently I have a kitchen full of homemade gummy bears, a pumpkin about to be exploded with rubber bands, and a few bowls of things that I am not quite sure what they actually are. Almost every night my kids have some creation they are making and they ask regularly to do science experiments. While some of this is their natural curiosity about the world, my husband regularly creates opportunities for them to make new things and explains the science behind the fun experiments. They not only mix and dissect anything they can, but they see themselves as scientists.
A few years ago (when my kids were 4 and 5), they learned how to make soap and I was so impressed by what they were doing and how much they were learning that I helped them make this video to capture the process. I love hearing their little voices explain how to make soap.
I couldn’t believe what they understood at four and five years old. As a result of making their own how to video, they also love to find other videos on how to make play-doh, slime, food… Basically they love to watch and learn how to make anything!
Doing Well in School vs Authentic Learning
As we see this constant desire and excitement to learn and create at home driven by intrinsic motivation, it was a surprise when we went in for my daughter’s parent teacher conference and found out she was marked “needs improvement” in science. My husband and I looked at each other and said, “I thought she loved science?!”We looked at her work and we all quickly recognized that she hadn’t finished copying the sentences from the board to complete her assignment. Her teacher indicated this was a lack of following directions, rather than her actual achievement in scientific concepts. I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast in her interest and motivation when the focus was on compliance rather than creating and what she learned in the process.
Ironically, true learning is often at odds with the expectations that are placed on many teachers to cover, assess, and document the achievement based on the standards. In this system, necessity to have evidence and a grade for the report card can become the focus over the actual learning. To be clear, this is not to place blame on the teachers, we all contribute to this- many parents focus on the grades, school leaders hold them accountable for grades and test results, and many kids learn how to play the game because the larger education system is built for this.
I know when I was a teacher, I certainly had times when I was guilty of creating experiences that were more about the rules of school than learning. I know I could have focused more on how ask better questions rather than simply finding the answers. I had tightly scheduled classes based on my objectives, and not as much of my students’ questions and goals as I should have, and they too often consumed rather than created.
In an article in Educational Leadership, Carol Ann Tomlinson’s describes her viewpoint on learning in schools:
“If we actually believe it doesn’t matter whether learners care about what we ask them to learn, we’ve lost our way. At the university, I teach many bright young adults who intend to learn anything that’s put in front of them—as long as all they have to do is commit it to memory and for the purpose of a grade. Sad as that is, they are likely better off than the multitude of K–12 students who halfheartedly poke at the plates full of disconnected and distant information we serve up each day—and the multitude who simply push those plates away. To create real learners, teachers have to reach the hearts, souls, and minds of students. Teaching a list of standards won’t get us there.”
I completely agree with her that teaching standards will not get us to where we need to be and to do this it will require that we all look at how we can support teachers to, as she says, “reach the hearts, souls, and minds of students, not just teach and assess the standards.” If not, we will continue to have kids who make it through the system and move through college with the focus on getting good grades, rather than learning. On the other hand, we will continue to have even more students (and teachers) that disengage from school. Share (2010), a counseling and career psychologist, acknowledges that “When exploration is stifled, a child is likely to lose the motivation to study, and his or her work may become less imaginative.” We can’t afford this as our world evolves and demands citizens who are more creative, imaginative and innovative, not less.
Prioritizing Desired Learning Experiences in School
Some days my daughter wants to be a scientist, other days she wants to be a chef. I have no idea what she will end up doing but I know that she loves to mix, and remix, and create new things… at least for now. I also know that, like other children her age, she is developing her self-concept as she interacts with people and learns to find her place in this world. And the reality of our current system is that grades and academic achievement will increasingly play a role in how she perceives her abilities and trajectory in life. I wonder if she will continue to love science and exploration as much as she does now if her experience in school is focused on compliance rather than opportunities for creativity and innovation.
Watching my kids’ excitement and desire to learn and create reinforces the importance of prioritizing the desired learning experiences in school. If we really value creation of new ideas, we have to model and support this type of learning. We can’t say that we want creative thinkers and problem solvers yet stifle those opportunities in school to ensure that we get through the curriculum. When we tell kids to complete an assignment, we get compliance. When we empower kids to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire innovators.