Ingredients for a Lifetime Love of Learning

For the past 30 years, there has been an educational movement aimed at making school a happier place for our nation’s children. To accomplish this, teachers have worked hard to create learning environments that are more physically and emotionally comfortable than they were in the past.  Consider the following trends that contrast former physical and pedagogical classroom structures:

 
 

These shifts are due - at least in part - to a generation of teachers who joined the profession because they didn’t like going to school themselves.

I fall into this category.  Although I didn’t hate attending school, I didn’t love it either.  When I became a teacher 14 years ago, I hoped to make my students’ classroom experiences so dynamic that they would wake up each morning excited to learn.

Working as an elementary mathematics consultant for the past seven years has given me the opportunity to visit dozens of public and private schools across the country.  Micro issues aside, the students I see inside these rural, urban, and suburban schools seem genuinely delighted to be in class.  Therefore, at least from my vantage, it seems that the movement has accomplished its mission.  For those who agree, it stands to follow that there is just cause for celebration.

I see it differently.

Although we have succeeded in teaching a generation of students to love going to school, we haven’t necessarily cultivated a love of learning in the process.  To understand why the latter has been less successful than the former, it’s important to examine the nature of learning itself.

Regardless of what’s being studied, learners tend to be happiest when they are presented with attainable challenges that stimulate creativity.

Meeting and conquering any challenge requires intense concentration, meticulous attention to detail, and perseverance.  The happiest, most memorable events of our lives tend to be moments when we worked hard and achieved a little beyond that which we thought possible.  Much of this satisfaction stems from the euphoria generated by deep focus on a singular task.  Current educational trends often lend themselves to individuality, choice, and physical comfort, but also noisier classrooms that incubate distraction.  As a result, a lot of children never experience the ecstasy of impenetrable focus, or the realization that they have a far greater aptitude than they previously thought.  By minimizing opportunities to concentrate and persevere, we prevent the joy of learning that both can lead to.

Sustained focus and resolve frequently leads to innovation.

Seeds of creativity germinate faster and sprout highest when they are rooted in strong foundations.  We often don’t think of ingenuity stemming from fundamentals, but carefully examine the development of any master artist, musician, or athlete, and you’ll invariably find that their creative work followed perfect practice habits in which they first acquired a strong skill set.  Cultivating a creative thought without strong fundamentals is like planting a tree in sandy soil.  Even if it takes root, it will never realize its fullest growth potential.  When we deemphasize basic skills, we restrict access to unexplored vistas of knowledge and imagination.

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The 20th century elementary school often conjures memories of rigid structures, boring lectures, and tedious practice.  Thus, in many places, the pendulum of school culture has made a 180-degree swing, taking on the philosophy:

The past was wrong, so the opposite must be correct.

Much good has come from this – including more students who are happy to go to school - but a lot has been lost in the process.

Consciously or subconsciously, the most successful 21st century teachers are astute scholars of educational history.  They recognize both the flaws and benefits of former pedagogical structures - avoiding the former, while adapting and/or blending the latter with best current practices.  They always prioritize their students’ happiness and know that building their concentration and foundational skills will, in the long run, foster that happiness.  They understand that joy and rigor are synonymous, not mutually exclusive, and so long as they are skilled and creative, their students won’t associate practice with tedium.

These teachers are always the most revered, because each school day their students experience love, structure, and a happy balance of work and play – the most important ingredients to developing a lifetime love of learning.