It is hard not to feel that there must be something very wrong with much of what we do in school, if we feel the need to worry so much about what many people call "motivation." A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing. Why can't we make more use of this great drive for understanding and competence?
a baby green iguana our neighbors caughtCall it a faith. This faith is that man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly, fish swim; man thinks and learns. Therefore we do not need to "motivate" children into learning, by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into school and the classroom; give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.
I put away Kai's math curriculum for 2 weeks.
This picture shows when he pulled it out on his own and started again.
He made this number line to help him.
How much people can learn at any moment depends on how they feel at the moment about the task and their ability to do the task. When we feel powerful and competent, we leap at difficult tasks. The difficulty does not discourage us; we think, "Sooner or later, I'm going to get this." At other times, we can only think, "I'll never get this, it's too hard for me, I never was any good at this kind of thing, why do I have to do it," etc. Part of the art of teaching is being able to sense which of these moods learners are in. People can go from one mood ot the other very quickly. In Never Too Late I wrote about an eight year old who could go from an up mood to a down and then back up, all in a thirty-minute cello lesson. When people are down, it's useless to push them or urge them on; that just frightens and discourages them more. What we have to do is draw back, take off the pressure, reassure them, console them, give them time to regain - as in time they will - enough energy and courage to go back to the task.
Children trying out new things are like plants putting out little green shoots. We must be careful not to cut them off.
This spirit of independence in learning is one of the most valuable assets a learner can have, and we who want to help children's learning, at home or in school, must learn to respect and encourage it.
stirring rice into water
What makes things easy or hard for our minds has very little to do with how little or how much information they may contain, and everything to do with how interesting they are and, to say it once again, how much sense they make, how connected they seem to reality.
taking apart an old coffee maker to see what it's like inside
...When they learn in their own way and for their own reasons children learn so much more rapidly and effectively than we could possibly teach them, that we can afford to throw away our curricula and our timestables, and set them free to learn on their own.
mixing colors with eyedroppers
Children do not need to be made to learn, told what to learn, or shown how. If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in that world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them.
going to work with daddy
The test of intelligence was not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do. Similarly, any situation, any activity, that puts before us real problems that we have to solve for ourselves, problems for which there are no answers in any book, sharpens our intelligence.
robot made from pieces of the coffee maker we took apart
...the things we learn because, for our own reasons, we really need to know them, we don't forget.
target practice (and good math practice, too!)
They (children) see the world as a whole, mysterious perhaps, but a whole none the less. They do not divide it up into airtight little categories, as we adults tend to do. It is natural for them to jump from one thing to another, and to make the kinds of connections that are rarely made in formal classes and textbooks. They make their own paths into th unknown, paths that we would never think of making for them.
making silly faces
Finally, when they are following their own noses, learning what they are curious about, children go faster, cover more territory than we would ever think of trying to mark out for them, or make them cover.
fishing in a bucket
Children's need to make sense of the world and to be skillful in it is as deep and strong as their need for food or rest or sleep.
..trust the child to direct his own learning. For it seems to me a facct that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn. To put this another way, curiosity is hardly ever idle. What we want to know, we want to know for a reason. The reason is that there is a hole, a gap, an empty space in our understanding of things, our mental model of the world. We feel that gap like a hole in a tooth and want to fill it up. It makes us ask How? When? Why? While the gap is there, we are in tension, in suspense. Listen to the anxiety in a person's voice when he says, "This doesn't make sense!" When the gap in our understanding is filled, we feel pleasure, satisfaction, relief. Things make sense again - or at any rate, they make more sense than they did.
preparing snack - how many strawberries does each person get?
When we learn this way, for these reasons, we learn both rapidly and permanently. The person who really needs to know something does not need to be told many times, drilled, tested. Once is enough. The new piece of knowledge fits into the gap ready for it, like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Once in place, it is held in, it can't fall out. We don't forget things that make the world a more reasonable or interesting place for us.
note from Kai when I was sick
We get better at using words, whether hearing, speaking, reading, or writing, under one condition and only one - when we use those words to say something we want to say, to people we want to say it to, for purposes that are our own.
The more a child uses his sense of consistence, of things fitting together and making sense, to find and correct his own mistakes, the more he will feel that his way of using his mind works, and the better he will get at it. He will feel more and more that he can figure out for himself, at least much of the time, which answers make sense and which do not. But if, as usually happens, we point out all his mistakes as soon as he makes them, and even worse, correct them for him, his self-checking and self-correcting skill will not develop, but will die out. He will cease to feel that he has it, or ever had it, or ever could have it.
In talking, reading, writing and many other things they do, children are perfectly able, if not hurried or made ashamed or fearful, to notice and correct most of their own mistakes. At first they tend to see these mistakes not as things done wrongly or badly but only as things done differently. Like my six-year-old friend who right now writes her letters forwards but her numerals backwards, they may think that these differences don't make any difference - if you know that the sign 3 stands for "three," what difference does it make which way it faces? But just as she has already taught herself to write her letters our way, she will soon decide that she wants to make her numbers our way as well - and then, without fuss or uproar, she will do it.
Learning in Spurts
Timetables! We act as if children were railroad trains running on a schedule. The railroad man figures that if his train is going to get to Chicago at a certain time, then it must arrive on time at every stop along the route. If it is ten minutes late getting into a station, he begins to worry. In the same way, we say that if children are going to know so much when they go to college, then they have to know this at the end of this grade, and that at the end of that grade. If a child doesn't arrive at one of these intermediate stations when we think he should, we instantly assume that he is going to be late at the finish. But children are not railroad trains. They don't learn at an even rate. They learn in spurts, and the more interested they are in what they are learning, the faster these spurts are likely to be.
Ezzy spelled his first word independently - pet- after watching "Talking Words Factory" and playing with letter blocks
A very common pattern in children's learning. First, a great bold leap forward into exciting new territotry. Then, for a short while,a retreat back into what is comfortable, familiar and secure. But we can't predict, much less control, these rhythms of advance and retreat, exploration and consolidation, and this is one of the main reasons why the learning of children can't, or at least shouldn't, be scheduled.
Kai, Ezzy and Jude made an obstacle course
running the obstacle course
roasting marshmallows with friends
There is more learning in a good picture than in twenty workbooks.
this is how Kai felt when he didn't win the trophy at soccer campLove
Gears, twigs, leaves, little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning. Can we bring ourselves to let children learn and grow through love?
If you actually made it through reading this whole post, I'd love to know your thoughts!