Almost all mothers will testify to being bombarded with never ending questions from their preschoolers and kindergartners, to the point of aggravation. Children are born with a natural curiosity to learn about the world around them. Allah has given human beings the ability, capacity, and most importantly, desire to explore the blessings He has given us. In other words, you can’t stop a child from learning. He is like a ravenous caterpillar, chomping up all the juicy leaves he comes across.
This is an apt description of a child entering school for the first time. He comes home bursting with tales of new discoveries, and his eyes sparkle with an intrinsic joy that comes from learning. Fast forward a few weeks, months, years, and we may unfortunately find a completely different child. Tales of discoveries are replaced by complaints of heaping homework. The sparkle in his eyes is replaced by a dullness that bespeaks apathy, stress, and a yearning to get away from anything educational. When he comes home from school, all he wants to do is rest and not think about it, much like how an adult doesn’t want to think about work at the office once he gets home. Learning, which was such a joy before, has now become a job. What has contributed to this apathy to learning?
Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, blames it on our obsession with grades. According to Kohn, when a child is pressured to achieve good grades and avoid bad grades, his focus shifts from learning, exploration, risk-taking, and discovery, to his performance. Instead of thinking of what he is doing, he is thinking of how well he’s doing. Thus, learning now takes a backseat to the pursuit of that A+. It no longer matters what it is he is learning. He’s so absorbed in cramming the information into his short term memory storage for future regurgitation that he doesn’t really connect with the subject matter in a way he would if he were learning it for the sake of learning. The point becomes not to acquire knowledge, and delight in the process, but to satisfy the teacher by giving her the correct answer, in the form that she accepts enough so as to give him full points for that question. If the child is not an achiever due to learning style or other reasons, the damage to his love of learning happens when he doesn’t attain what everyone is aiming for. He thus develops a negative assessment of his intellect and views learning as something that is not within his grasp.
The preoccupation with testing and grades led to the creation of study guides. Study guides were created to make possible the art of cramming information for temporary storage. Thrust in a system that requires them to perform, students rely on these study guides as if they are their salvation from bad grades. The system that necessitates students to use them is cheating these very students out of the joy of learning. Questions such as ‘Will this come out on the test?” or “Do we need to know this?” are signs that learning has depreciated in value. The student has come to a point where he will only study what will come out on the test. Anymore than that is extra and unnecessary. And as soon as the exams are done with, everything educational are retired to a dusty corner, never to be touched until the next school term starts.
When grades and rewards are dangled on a stick to bribe learning, learning is automatically degraded to a less appealing state. Daniel Pink, author of Drive The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, presents the Sawyer effect, where play is turned into work and vice versa by certain practices, one of which is giving rewards. By this definition, a child who is offered a slice of pizza if he completes reading a book, will eventually view reading as a chore even if he takes to the challenge enthusiastically at first. The very fact that a reward is offered for the task renders the task unappealing. If applied to learning, it will eradicate the joy of learning in the long run.
With rewards and grades at stake, making mistakes and taking risks have no place in the race to A’s. No smart child will jeopardize his chance of attaining an A+ or reward by choosing to explore a subject in a way that will definitely incur mistakes. To explore a subject matter in such a way is to engage in learning in which making mistakes is a necessary component. Taking risks and making mistakes are part and parcel of effective learning. A child who is bent on getting an A for his artwork will abandon risk-taking in his brush strokes and stick to what he knows, so as not to make mistakes. As stated by Pink, rewards narrow our focus, and this in turn limits creativity in open ended activities. When red flowers receive higher appraisal than rainbow striped ones, the child will make his flowers red. When doing a math problem in which there are many ways to come to the solution, the child will stick with the method he is certain will get him the right answer, thus depriving him of a learning experience that may very well enrich his math experience in the long run.
In order for learning to be effective and meaningful, it needs to happen in context. A child who is taught the anatomy of a real live ladybug because he came across it while playing outdoors learns differently than a child who is taught the anatomy of a ladybug from a book just because it happens to be the topic of the day. In the real world, disparate subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, literature, art, and economics interweave to form what we experience as life. However, our education system separates these subjects and sterilizes them out of context. When a child is fed disparate bits of data over the course of twelve years of schooling, the logical and human thing to do is to forget them. It’s easy to forget them because they don’t carry much meaning out of context.
Fortunately, Allah has created the human brain to be resilient. Some of us who suffered damages incurred by grades, rewards, and de-contextualized teaching have fortunately managed to rediscover our inborn love of learning. The even luckier ones have managed to keep that love of learning intact. Unfortunately, there are those who have lost it forever. The question is, are we willing to take this risk with our children? How do we keep this love of learning intact in a system that threatens to extinguish it? Part two will shed some light.
Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn
Drive The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
Juli Herman remembers thinking, ‘Now I can read whatever I want!’ the moment she rushed home to her two babies after being done with final exams in her final semester in college. From that moment on, she has embarked on a journey of rediscovering her love of learning, and by Allah’s mercy, she believes she has found it.
Published in SISTERS magazine June 2011 issue. Also posted on Juli Herman’s personal blog.