Does Learning Have to Suck?

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In my last post, Pouring Concrete, I wrote about an experiment…

I used an iPod nano as a source of additional“external” motivation to see if it would inspire my daughter to do a huge amount of school-prep work in a short period of time over the Summer. The focus of that post was to see how differing levels of “concreteness” effected the motivational power of the reward. But, in the comments, the conversation quickly turned to another issue…

Love of Learning, how to cultivate it…and how to bastardize it.

As a dad who’s smack in the middle of this exploration, I wanted to honor this topic with it’s own post and build on the discussion here by focusing on 3 distinct questions:

  • Is it really possible to cultivate a “universal” love of learning or is love of learning topic driven?
  • Should kids be made to learn things they have no intrinsic interest in or passion for?
  • What’s the best way to incentivize learning in kids?

When people talk about love of learning and how it’s teachable, they often bring up the classic 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver.” In it, high school teacher Jaime A. Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, takes a bunch of kids who’d been written off as unteachable and turns them into learning machines. It was a tremendous movie, moreso because it was based on a true story. And, many people point to real life scenarios like that as proof that a universal love of learning is teachable.

But, was Escalante really cultivating a genuine love of learning?

Or, was it that he fostered in kids that had been written off a renewed sense of self-respect, a realization that someone else cared and tapped into their desire to prove to the world and to themselves that they weren’t throw aways? No doubt, those are powerful motivators for a select group of kids. And, what they learned beyond the content added to those kids lives in a big way.

But, is that really love of learning?

I am madly passionate about a lot of things, have been since I was a kid. And, having taken the Signature Strenghts Survey developed by the father of Applied Positive Psychology and U of Penn Professor Martin Seligman, I’ve come to understand that one of my intrinsic strengths/motivators is knowledge acquisition. BUT, I also know that my quest for and love of learning is by no means…universal. It only activates in the context of topic areas that are either readily interesting to me or where I can see how (sometimes with the help of others) they might be interesting to me. There are far more topics I have little interest in. Zero love of learning them.

So, for the topics I have an intrinsic interest in, it’s fairly easy for me to tap my signature strength thirst for knowledge and “love” the learning process. I don’t need any other motivation than the opportunity to learn more about something I’m deeply interested in (though, I’ll challenge even that in a bit).

But, what about that sea of topics I have zero natural interest in?

Can I still develop a true love of learning for those topics? When I’ve posed this question to those who profess the existence of a universal love of learning, the ready answer is often, “you just need someone to show you how they’re relevant to the areas that do jazz you, then you’ll be able to transfer your love of learning to this new topic.” And, sometimes that’s true. But, often times, it’s not. There is no easy transference. Nor should there be.

Because love of learning is not a universally-applied trait.

Rather, it’s a quality that’s heavily influenced by personal preference, genetics, topic, setting, and people. And, that’s okay. In fact, that’s part of the reason a number of “progressive” approaches to education focus away from forced study of topics with no easy path to intrinsic reward and largely abandon the age-old educational notion of churning out “well rounded” kids via standardized education.

Instead, they focus on identifying the far smaller basket of true interests, build a strong love of learning around them and only them and allow kids to focus substantially more time and energy into those areas. And, that often has the secondary benefit of creating accelerated progress in those areas, fostering a positive feedback loop that leads to even more study and more success.

Before we move on, though, I think it’s important to distinguish between areas of genuine lack of interest and the perceived “drudge work” that’s required to lay a basic foundation in an area where there IS a genuine passion.

An example of this would be the memorization and repeated scales that create the neuromuscular pathways and knowledge base needed to reach a level of baseline proficiency when learning an instrument. I’m sure we can all remember back to those days. With rare exception it’s not fun, but we also know that it’s made far more bearable when the kid who’s being asked to do scales (instead of playing outside) has a real, rather than parent-induced interest in the instrument. And, as Suzuki discovered, it also helps when the parent is going through this very same process along with the kid.

In this scenario, it’s easier to motivate your kid intrinsically, because they see where it leads and that place is somewhere they want to be. It’s a very different scenario, though, than the one where the kid can see where the course of study leads and has zero interest in either the journey or the destination.

Which circles us back to a really big question that I and millions of other parents are grappling with…

Is it possible to honor this knowledge while keeping your kid in public school?

Especially when No Child Left Behind has moved so many curricula to a highly-standardized, well-rounded “teach to the test” approach? My daughter is in public school. She happens to love school and loves most of her topics. Not all, but most. Which is why it was so unusual for me to try the iPod experiment.

Truth is, the hurdle there wasn’t so much a disdain for learning as it was the need to complete a massive volume of repetition-driven work in a very compressed timeframe. Generally, not fun, even if you love the work at humane loads. Plus, I was very curious how motivational increasing levels of concreteness would be when the real hurdle was the volume and time, rather than the nature of work. And, as I said in the last post, it wasn’t about being competitive or being the high grade once school began.

It was about knowing that this was her first potential year of “testing” and wanting to do everything possible to let her feel comfortable and confident from the get go and minimize any potential stress involved in the process. Selling confidence, though, didn’t seem to be working when contrasted against the opportunity to play outside for the final few weeks of Summer. And, at 8 yrs old, didn’t want to focus on the fear, anxiety avoidance side of the equation as a motivator. So, I experimented with external rewards. And, in this scenario, it worked.

Was this a bribe as someone accused in the comments on my last post?

I don’t think so. Because though I’m a huge believer in intrinsic rewards, in certain unique circumstances, external rewards often serve as powerful motivators…even in the context of activities where there is a clear, pre-existing passion or interest.

  • Most Olympians work hard to excel because of a deep intrinsic love of the activity. But, damned if the shot at winning the gold isn’t huge motivation to work even harder. Is that a bribe?
  • Most hoops players spend hours on the court from the time they are kids, for the love of the game. But, many focus even harder when the prospect of a scholarship or pro contract is on the line. Is that a bribe?
  • Many researchers and professors work out of a deep connection with their work, but dig even deeper when a huge grant, prestigious position, publication or tenure is on the line. Are those all bribes?

In all cases, I don’t think so. There’s a time for pure intrinsic motivation, a time for pure external motivation and a time where a blended approach works best. It’s a very thin line we begin to dance when we label all external motivators and rewards bribes.

But, let’s circle back to…

The big question I’m wrestling with as a dad with a little girl in public school…

Assuming for now, we’re not ready to pull our daughter from public school (though, this is still a hot topic):

  • What is the best way to motivate a kid to learn topics that are completely devoid of genuine interest, but are required by a highly-standardized external curriculum and approach to teaching?

And, even more important…SHOULD work in an area devoid of genuine interest or passion be motivated at all or should you take a progressive schooling/unschooling approach and and focus far more energy on identifying and then developing areas of strength/passion interest?

I think it’s pretty clear that I don’t have all the answers. And, I haven’t been completely persuaded by any camp that “their” approach is the best. But, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the questions. And, as always, you guys are a huge source of information and inspiration.

Let’s continue this in the comments…

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38 responses

38 responses to “Does Learning Have to Suck?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Platt and Gina Backes. Gina Backes said: RT @jonathanfields: Does Learning Have to Suck? … […]

  2. Great post, thanks.

    In my business – math education – kids come to our online tutor from a number of angles. We see parents pushing unmotivated children into the service and motivated children pulling their parents into subscribing on their behalf.

    Love of learning and love of the subject don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, and whilst I cling to the idea of learning as a joy in itself, I see how our math students learn to love learning, even if they didn’t always love math. They get a kick out of knowing stuff and improving their skills, and all it takes to make this happen is the kind of positive feedback we give them with initial success.

    A physically fit person often gets fit because of the intrinsic benefits, but he often stays fit because he feels a powerful need to do so. A child might start with a particular subject she enjoys, but (to extend the analogy) by exercising the brain she gets the urge to go on exercising, even on subjects that don’t instantly appeal. It would be churlish of anyone to argue that this doesn’t constitute ‘true’ learning.

  3. […] Fields, over at Awake@TheWheel, asks aloud how one goes about engendering a love of learning. Read his great post, which he begins with the following […]

  4. Srinivas Rao says:

    This is a really interest post Jonathan. I got pretty bad grades in college and part of me questions whether it was that I had ADHD or it’s that I really didn’t have a genuine interest in what I was studying. If it were up to me now, I think I would have majored in something like creative writing. I come from a culture where people would go nuts if they found out I chose such an impractical major because it would have no possibility of getting me a job. Yet, one thing I realized almost all employers cared about was that you did well in school, and were well rounded.

    I’m not sure if you have seen the movie Accepted. It’s a pretty funny movie where this guy creates his own college when he doesn’t get in anywhere. Out of nowhere a bunch of students show up saying they got in too, and he develops a curriculum completely based on what the students want to learn. Basically he takes the tuition dollars of each students and appropriates the funds to what they want to learn. I always wondered what kind of results this kind of experimental learning would produce. Anyways, really interesting article.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      That actually sounds a lot like the Waldorf approach to education where the kids have a huge amount of self determination in the process. And, the parents I know with kids in Waldorf schools have told me they end up doing really well in college and tend to be much more creative at problem solving

  5. love your grappling and your questions. As a parent of teenagers I am now at a stage where the challenge -rather than figuring out what incentives will enable them to learn is to sit back and let them decide how to handle the consequences when they make the choice not to study–

    Also, this may not be a public school v private school dilemma. It may be question that is relevant in all formal education’l institutions.

    Finally, I invite you to check out this piece I wrote on whether kids can finding their oife purpose in schools and the two books that inspired it :

    Can’t wait for your blog poSts when your daighter is 14!

  6. Well, learning should never suck. But I’m wondering if the broader problem isn’t so much curriculum as bad teaching (as if teaching to a test could be a good thing)?

    I’m in the camp who believes that knowledge inherently has value, and pretty much any topic can be interesting if you’ve got the right person teaching it to you. I thought I was going to get an economics degree until I discovered Wordsworth in a literature course. And I had two years of required science courses in college, and can still recite the building blocks of life (acronym: CHONPS)and understand why scientists got excited when they thought they’ve found sulpher on Saturn.

    Discovery is good, and I think being an educated person is important (in the broad sense, not the university-pedigreed way). It’s just a shame when someone mangles the content.

  7. Okay, where to begin? Lets start with bribes. In her book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, Karen Pryor points out that all behavioral change usually results from from 2 things, punishment and reward. So if you are encouraging a behavior then you used a perfectly acceptable method. She is an animal trainer and her book is about behavior modification. The title derives from her example, “You have a dog that barks all night”. Worse case scenario, you shoot the dog. I highly recommend it for everyone.
    Second, I think one of the best ways to foster a love of learning, is to first foster a love of reading. All of the best educated people I have known were avid readers and quite a few of them had little formal education. If you could only do one thing towards furthering your daughters education, then introducing her to books she will love is the one I would pick. At 8 I believe “The Chronicles of Narnia”, and The Harry Potter series might be good choices. See which movies she prefers, then get her books with similar content that has yet to be filmed.
    I was a G.E.D. tutor for a short time while incarcerated. I had one young man tell me he would never use fractions and didn’t understand them. When I pointed out that, as former drug dealer, he used fractions every day he was hustling and how fractions (i.e. a quarter=1/4 of a dollar) related to money, it quickly clicked for him. Another student had been an over-the-road truck driver. When I showed him how math skills would enable him to figure out which would yield him the most profit, i.e. hourly or by the mile, he suddenly grew interested. My point here is that people are always more interested in subjects when they can see how those things will benefit them. Almost any subject can be tied to an area that interests a person, if you only look long enough to find where a current interest intersects the subject you want to encourage.
    I hope you find this helpful.

  8. I was lucky to have been seemingly born with a love of learning. Sure, I couldn’t stand learning most of what we did in school, but in my free time I found topics that were exciting, fulfilling, and easily digestible. I started with some simpler topics and then just worked my way from there. Over time I’ve built momentum and that’s really helped.

    In terms of learning things you’re not interested in, well, uh…that’s a tricky one. Unless your kids have a genuine interest in going to college (I’m assuming they’re too young to be thinking about that just yet though) then I don’t believe any real motivation can be had from external forces.

    But the schooling system is broken. There’s so much irrelevant clutter that it’s time for an overhaul. In my 13 years of school I was never once told to read On Writing Well or The Elements of Style, yet my writing improved dramatically after doing so. And I was never taught about finances through The Richest Man in Babylon, or success in any form like that outlined in Think and Grow Rich.

    There is so much brilliant source material yet I was forced to labour away at 100’s of math problems based on Pythagorus’ Theorem. Everyone I know who achieved brilliant grades (in the top 1-2% range) said they’ve forgotten everything they were examined on. What was the point the first place? Early school life is alright because we get a broad overview of what’s out in the world, but as time goes on we go into excruciating detail about topics that most people don’t care about. The few that do have an interest in the topics or just sheer dedication to go to college succeed while the rest sift to the bottom.



  9. So a couple of things – bribes don’t work long term (and I’m not saying what you did was a bribe). As Stevedreamweaver hinted at, Karen Pryor has a few more hints you need. Get ‘don’t shoot the dog’ and read it. Her more recent ‘Reaching the animal mind’ covers training kids in some detail. Both books only touch on how using these methods instill intrinsic motivation.

    Now to your last question: What is the best way to motivate a kid to learn topics that are completely devoid of genuine interest, but are required by a highly-standardized external curriculum and approach to teaching?

    I have to ask: other than passing the test, what’s the purpose of learning this stuff? If it is just to pass the test, I’d teach the kids to ‘cheat’. Teach them specific memory techniques and other ways to learn fast (something that is NOT taught in school). Things like strategies for spelling, maths, dates, formula, sequences etc. So they spend the absolute minimum time learning things they need to regurgitate. If it’s more than just the test, I’d still teach them memory and learning methods, but also relate the content of what they’re learning to something they want/like/enjoy. See ‘don’t shoot the dog’ for some other ideas of linking the two.

    Additionally, learning is only sometimes fun. I teach (and learn) a lot and could write many pages on this, however I’ll limit myself to a few specific hints. As you suggest, doing scales (practice) for an hour a day is a chore. However, you can make it more fun:
    1. Set a specific target for this lesson. Might be simple 3 ‘perfect’ scales in a row.
    1a. Make sure the goal is (just) within reach. This extra stretch is needed, but the goal needs to be achievable. Whatever it is, use a visual counting method – poker chips etc. Each movement is it’s own mini-goal within the target goal as well as a rest period.
    2. Once you achieve the goal, STOP! (re-negotiation is acceptable) Doesn’t matter if you did it first time, or the 100th time. We don’t learn by the number of hours we spend doing something. We learn by the effectiveness of the learning we do. 5 min a day might well be better than 2 hours a day…
    3. You’re done for the day, hour, etc. This avoids poisoning the fun by making it a chore. If you succeed, stopping encourages doing more later. If you keep failing after a success, it’s effectively punishment which makes it more difficult to keep doing.

  10. Dan Pink once suggested that free agent workers might also need to take a free agent approach to educating their children. I tend to agree. I haven’t figured it out yet but I can’t see forcing my kids to fit into a system that tries to round them out when my mission in life is to help people freak out and focus on their true strengths and passions.

    At this point, I’m willing to accept lower grades in classes that don’t turn my kids on, in exchange for higher grades in classes they love. Just like I don’t push my oldest daughter to play sports, I don’t plan on forcing my kids to get an A+ in biology if they just don’t connect with the subject and would rather be reading a history book.

    This perspective also includes the belief that traditional educational success is not really required for a successful life or career. I’m not panicking about what college my kids attend. There are a lot of routes to success and fulfillment and school isn’t the only place to demonstrate one’s value.

    This is a huge issue with a lot of implications. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  11. How to get kids to learn the things that don’t interest them but every high school grad is expected to know? Encourage them to use their Signature Strengths and other talents in learning them. Memorize spelling words by creating something from them each week, such as writing them in cake frosting to eat your words or assembling them into a seek-a-word puzzle. Bring fairness or authenticity to the task of learning about cultures or history through debates or preparing a letter to an elected leader about an issue. Add teamwork or leadership by making it a group project. Use humor to write jokes about numbers (I one a bug, I two a bug…) or zest to play math hopscotch. Use perseverance to tackle a science fair entry.

    And when studying the subjects that really intrigue them, encourage them to try bringing some of the other 19 character strengths, the ones that aren’t their Signature Strengths, to the task.

  12. Joe Jacobi says:

    Thanks for the interesting post, Jonathan. I have to admit, after reading some of these comments, I feel a bit out of my league here. But since you mentioned the “Olympic” example, I’m chiming in 🙂

    First, in conversations about educating our children, it seems like we’re often dealing with what the kids might miss rather than what they might receive. Whenever this conversation comes up in a political speech, blogpost or somewhere else, you can feel an underlying fear and it makes me wonder about the implications of not addressing/confronting these fears before they become an obstacle to our kids’ opportunities. In other important decision-making like career, relationships, happiness, etc, we talk about confronting fear first to clear a path for moving forward. Do we do that enough or do it effectively? Or are these fears becoming an interruption for our kids?

    Second, about motivating kids in an area devoid of interest, I’m going broader on this one. It would be cool to see our kids being more open to learning something that initially might not be interesting, right? If you want to change your kids’ curiosity, change the day-to-day environment more often. Put your kids in the position of experiencing more extreme differences and they’ll be more open to a wider variety of topics and views. You live in NYC. Take more trips to the country. Walk on hard ground much? Spend more time on the water, slackline, or zip? Raised Jewish? Check out a church one time and see what’s going on there. For me, when I see a room full of people exit to the right, I have a pretty good idea why I’m always looking left. I absolutely believe this stuff translates directly to the question you’re asking.

    Two final thoughts – 1) Nearly every teammate with whom I competed with on the US Whitewater Team would likely to tell you I was the least “results-driven” guy they raced with but I wouldn’t be truthful if I told you I fell asleep every night not thinking what the Gold Medal Moment would feel like. (It’s good thing and it’s not a bribe.) And 2) if Stevedreamweaver wanted to confirm that he was advocating the book and not shooting the dog, that would be cool too 🙂

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great ideas, Joe. That’s one of the reasons I love to get my daughter out of the city. She loves being outdoors, in the woods and even playing with bugs. And, nature is such an incredible to teacher when you just take the time to be present in it.

  13. Dataflurry says:

    I believe it’s 100% mental. Unfortunately, most all kids are negative these days and often times kids are influenced by their surrounding school patrons. Most kids regularly talk about how cruddy school and learning is, and then positive kids start becoming susceptible to believing that school sucks. I could be wrong, but I think making sure that your kids only hang out with positive kids with high standards would definitely help

  14. Dayne says:

    I think the way to cultivate learning and to make it not “suck” is to make it fun. This is true not only for children but adults. I think once this is in place, the habit of learning will grow and open up all kinds of new avenues in life.

    Thanks for the great post!


  15. Karin Manske says:

    What a great topic! I was so concerned with my own kids happiness and so afraid that they could get damaged in the public school system, that I took them out and home schooled them. This worked out great but did have its downsides. That was 15 years ago. Today my youngest is going to 5th grade in a public school and very, very happy.
    I think what is different between now and then is the confidence I have in my kids and their schooling. What also helps is to know that there are alternatives. If the public school does not work out, so be it. I am not going to have that run my life.
    One thing I have always done is watch my kids aliveness to see what it is they enjoy and help them to pursue that. If there are subjects they are dreading, I am helping them out with them and show them how to make even those interesting. I leaned that in my own business. There are certain things I don’t like doing but if I have to do them, I am going to make them fun 🙂
    Thanks, Jonathan for putting this out there!

  16. Jonathan, This is Angelica. Listen, you’ve got to consider Fieldston Lower School for your little girl. In my opinion, this child-centered, progressive education (diverse) school is perhaps one of the best environment for children to learn in. Notice that I purposely did not say “academic” environment…why? Because children at Fieldston Lower learn through living, doing, playing and being a part of an amazing community. My oldest daughter attended Fieldston Lower from Pre-K to 6th grade, the most amazing 8 years of her life and mine. Their ability to foster confidence, calm and inner peace in children is truly outstanding. Their hands on and experiential learning makes school feel like home and family. There is no homework until 3rd grade, and no tests. Children are measured not in numbers, but in their innate abilities, strengths and potential.

    Go get yourself an application, go now…tell George (the principal), that Angelica Perez sent you. Fieldston is about a community of good and loving families…I’m sure they’ll love to have yours be a part of theirs. Call me if you want to discuss further…

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      We’ve actually looked at Fieldston, in fact it’s just a few blocks from where we live and the approach looks amazing. We’ve also looked at Waldorf schools. At this point, we’re keeping a close watch on everything and are pretty open to going in a number of different directions.

  17. Johnathon always a pleasure to read your material. In my kids school they really try to make learning fun. They are getting rid of the traditional text book, and are becoming more hands on. This is only until 8th grade, but hey they are starting somewhere.

    When I am training people, you can’t make every topic interesting, however if you can find there likes and dislikes you can incorporate that into the training.

    Fun Education —lets see more of that.

  18. Ahhh… this is such a huge subject in our house.

    I, too, have that love of learning and my daughter doesn’t appear to… we did private alternative school and then public from 6th grade on. She’s in 10th now, and she is mostly concerned with maintaining her grade point average, far more than learning. We had a great conversation last night – great in that she listened this time – that grades are NOT what matters, and I don’t want her to look back and think, “Shoot, I wasted that four years keeping up and very little of it mattered to me.” I’m trying to explore with her how she can play with different things, find things that interest her, and yet also be aware there is a system that is worth being able to work IF you are
    a mainstream kid who will probably want to have a mainstream job – which she is. So I frame a lot of the school work she does as keeping her options open. As in, work the system without losing your soul. It feels very crappy some days – but my main focus is helping her trust her own interest, find those interests; they feel very buried to me since high school started.

    Thanks for the chance to talk about this!

    PS love what Karin said about watching her children’s aliveness.

  19. Kelly says:


    Ah. Such a tricky subject.

    In my humble opinion, the answer is, yes. Sorry, but I think for some people learning does have to suck.

    I grew up the older of two brainy girls. I adored school. I worked hard, because I liked to, and because I had to, to get what I wanted. I had a dread of low grades (more than joy at high grades). I would go to any lengths to get as close to 100 on everything as humanly possible, for both the love of learning and the hate of “losing.” It was a competition with the score, you might say, and I had to win. To this day I adore reading, learning new things, and formal and informal education, and I no longer need a score to keep going—but you’d better believe when I’m back in a classroom I’m going for the 4.0! If I were a zillionaire I’d be thrilled to be a permanent college student.

    My younger, and smarter, sister could not care less about school. She didn’t have to work very hard at it, because she was bright enough to coast and still get grades that were good enough for her internal standards. Try as they might, my parents couldn’t get her to do much work in school. They did everything to make it fun for her but she just didn’t see it. The most famous events in her high school career were sleeping through all but 5 minutes of tests and still passing and the like. College lasted about a semester for her, and she’s made her own way since then. Different things make her content with her life.

    Now, we both have incredibly bright children in the 8 to 10 year old range. Hers—one’s motivated solely by external factors, but seeks those external factors out himself. He’d get the iPod idea in his head himself, get approval from his parents, put up a picture of it, and make the work happen to get it, all on his own. The other is… extremely low motivation. If an iPod doesn’t come to her, she is not going to go chasing it! She still does quite well in school.

    And mine… mine wants to want to do well. She has her moments of joy; she has subjects that interest her more and some that are torture. Even though she does well in all of them, she’d sooner skip them all. Fear of disapproval (from teachers) definitely motivates her more than praise, grades, fun tie-ins to the learning, or all the ideas I’d hoped would instill internal motivation in her—but not by much. I try to assume it’s the age, but the truth is, this has always been who she is. I like to say I couldn’t light a fire under her with a blowtorch. Goodness knows, no “bribe” would ever work.

    Some day I do hope she’ll light a fire on her own, but the truth is… having seen the full range up close, I think for some people, learning just sucks.

    My 2¢.



  20. Jeb says:

    I believe with every ounce of my being that we need to turn the public education system on it’s ear. My eldest son (10) generally hates school. But there are things he is absolutely passionate about..none of which fall within a standard curriculum. He’s smart, and does well regardless, but are we providing him the tools and motivation to bring out his best? More importantly, are we teaching him to honor that part of him that understands and experiences pure, genuine, joy?

    How much better would this world be were we all doing that precise thing which tapped into our greatest potential? How much more could we give to the world, to each other, had we all been given the gift of learning to value that which brings out our very best?

    We need to collectively challenge the assumptions our society is operating with on many fronts. None more so than in the way we educate our young people.

  21. Lorraine says:

    My two cents worth, based purely on anecdotal experience:

    Academics are introduced far too early pandering to parents’ fears that kids will be left behind. The academic paradigm emphasizes “cramming the pot full” instead of “lighting a fire under the pot.”

    Rote learning, work sheets, text books and computer drills force kids to sit still and focus mentally–notoriously difficult for little kids, especially boys. (Perhaps why we see so many ADHD diagnoses–hyperactivity being something of a normal state for boys, a “condition” they outgrow if allowed to play sports, games, run and move.)

    “What about that sea of topics I have zero natural interest in?” you ask. Again, some of this is educators’–and parents’–unrealistic academic expectations for young kids. A subject that bores a child silly in 2nd grade may prove fascinating to the kid when she’s a high school freshman. Cram it down her throat now and there’s a good chance she’ll hate it. Forever.

    Also–a controversial opinion, I know–I think TV, computer games and the Internet substitute far too much for reading, story telling, experiential learning and PLAY. Young children need to live in the real world, in their bodies–not heads–and experience with their senses or imagination, creative thinking and resourcefulness are dulled.

    Public vs. private school. Big sigh. I intended to send our kids to public school–it was why we moved to our NYC superb with its well-reputed schools. It didn’t work out. The local public school prided itself on computer technology and an uber-academic curriculum. I knew my athletic, physically restless boy would not fit in.

    We made many sacrifices to send him and our other children to Waldorf schools when they were every young and other private schools later.

    Their early education was hallmarked by experiential non-coercive learning, art, handwork, play and a distinct dearth of technology and homework.

    BTW, Redardless of their intrinsic worth–or not–I’m not so unrealistic as to think grades, standardized tests and SATs don’t play a huge role in kids’ futures. But I don’t think a kid can prepare for those tests in grammar school.

    When the time came, our “alternatively educated” kids excelled. The oldest was accepted at the most selective colleges and the younger two are doing extremely well also. I firmly believe the scenarios would have played out differently–especially for my oldest–if we had forced them into the cookie-cutter academic molds.

    Also wanted to leave you with link to Dan Pink’s TED talk on “What really motivates us to excel? Rethinking stick-and-carrot mentality”

    Sorry this comment went on so long–clearly you hit a nerve.

  22. […] Does Learning Have to Suck? | Jonathan Fields […]

  23. Amy says:

    Jonathan, I’m glad to hear public school works well for your daughter! I started homeschooling my daughter when I realized her love for learning. She is more of a “hands on” learner than the “sit down and listen” learners. Sadly, our local South Carolina public school couldn’t (or didn’t know how to) accommodate this type of learner. This is the first year homeschooling and she is doing great! I try to make it as fun as possible and I love watching how excited she gets when learning and how she can’t wait to “go to school” in the mornings! When you make things fun for the kids, whether in public school or at home, they enjoy learning! Same applies to the adults! Thanks for the post!

  24. Maggie Mae says:

    I am right there with you. I have an almost 8-year-old in public school 3rd grade. She is an intelligent little girl with a broad love of learning. Broad but NOT universal, I don’t think. the subjects of disinterest are a big problem and I have found no intrinsic or extrinsic motivators at all to get her to focus on these subjects. The subjects of interest need no reward other than her learning more about it. I’d love to home school but I have 4-year-old twins with special needs that tie up a significant amount of my time… making it highly unlikely (I’d never say impossible though I’d like to). Further, I believe in the social exposure of the public school system. And, being on Long Island, we have a highly rated public school system so, in the realm of the automated education being forced on our children (totally agree with/bought into your rant on the US education system failing our kids), she’s getting a “good” education. I’ll have to go back and check your iPod post (missed that one though I don’t know how). Thing is, technology is one of the things that does not interest my daughter at all!

    Let me know what you find out. I’m waiting with baited breath!

  25. John Bardos says:

    I think you are correct in saying there has to be a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. They are both required in different degrees and at different times.

    Another very related issue is discipline. The “constructivist” approach to teaching has spawned a “child-centered” approach. Unfortunately, many teachers and parents interpreted this to mean, “let your kids do whatever they want.”

    Children and adults alike, need structure, boundaries and discipline to excel. I have been teaching children for more than 10 years and I firmly believe in respecting children as individuals, however that doesn’t mean complete freedom.

    Look at any top level athlete or musician and there will almost always be someone that forced them to put in the hours of practice when they were young. Like you said, children are not intrinsically motivated to practice scales for hours a day. It starts with a strict parent or coach that basically makes them do it (or bribes them :-)). Over time top performers learn to value practice for itself, but it doesn’t start that way.

  26. Robert Fay says:

    Dear Jonathan,

    The thing that came up for me throughout your post was what my father said to me as a teen.

    “The garden needs weeding. There are things in life that you don’t want to do, but you have to do them if you want to eat this winter.”

    To be fancy about it, he was teaching me discipline. This was the crucial grinding lesson essential for me, and I believe all of culture everywhere. It got me through a chemistry degree even with fairly significant dyslexia and unusually weak sequential memory ability limited to 4 units of letters, numbers or symbols at the max.

    The most important thing any child can learn, at the most propitious moment of tiny youth, is to pick up the seed corn so there will be food to grow next spring. The bending over and scrounging in the dirt for the lost kernals dropped on the floor is no fun, after all. The youngest child is assigned this task because they are closest to the chore. Still, they always want to be playing with the rest of the family shucking the corn and having a great old time.

    What is it that gets learned?

    What a lesson for a parent to learn.

    Respectfully yours,
    Robert Fay

  27. Sue says:

    I’m also one of those individuals who seem to have an innate love of learning–for some subjects more than others. I think there are some subjects that for whatever reason we are innately drawn to and excited by(for me it was anything to do with English Literature, languages, history and social studies)and others that just don’t hold the same appeal or a more of a challenge to learn really well. Math and sciences were not generally my strong suit, BUT on the rare occasions that I ended up in a class with a really great teacher(meaning it was clear she or he really loved the subject, loved teaching and really cared about their students understanding the information), my grades in those subjects would shift from a C or C+ to a B or even an A. That’s the long way of saying that I do think that a teacher’s ability to teach well also plays a big role in instilling an appreciation for–if not love of–learning. Being made to teach and learn to a standardized testing system is real disservice both to teachers and students because it really does kill a genuine interest in the subject.

    I would argue that it is important to have a well-rounded knowledge of basic skill sets which unfortunately does require a bit of drudge work in the form of drills and apparently meaningless exercises while learning the foundations of the subject. Based on what I saw when I worked at a tutoring centre, I don’t think it serves kids all that well, to let them avoid the subjects they find less interesting or more difficult, because it doesn’t get any easier as they get into higher grades and then don’t know the basics of the subject. I do think that making an effort to find a teaching style that works for the child and putting the information into a context that is relevant to a child can help to reduce the “learning sucks” mind-set.

  28. […] Does Learning Have to Suck? | Jonathan Fields […]

  29. Annabel says:

    I’m learning so much from this discussion, there are some really insightful comments here!

    Jonathan, regarding the external motivators: all the examples you gave applied to adults. I’m not saying I have the answers, but I’ve been researching this and the evidence suggests that use of external motivators in children ultimately backfires. One excellent resource is “Your Child’s Growing Mind” by Dr. Jane Healy

    It’s a great book because it’s fully backed by scientific research, it’s not just her opinion. She talks in depth about how to motivate children. A couple of samples:

    “Many parents and teachers make the mistake of believing that external rewards are a good way to motivate children. While stars, stickers, money for grades, and bribes (“You can have a bike if you get all A’s”) sometimes work in the short run, they have the ultimate effect of removing even more internal control from the one who needs it most- the learner.” (she has a great section on how to foster an internal “locus of control” in our children)

    “Overuse of extrinsic rewards imposed by parents or teachers tends to reduce motivation in the long run. Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, come from feelings of satisfaction in a challenge mastered and new competence gained”

    Some of the tips she gives for raising motivated learners include:

    -Focus on effort/learning, not grades/product
    -Avoid external rewards and punishments whenever possible
    -Provide carefully designed challenges,
    -Encourage children to celebrate small successes
    -Avoid insincere praise for poor work (definition of “poor” or “good” depends on the child’s ability in this particular situation)
    -Offer choices within an overall structure
    -Provide a variety of output modes (projects, art, music, dance, etc.)
    -Help children see the reason (personal payoff) for completing tasks

    Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have also just come out with a book called “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” and here is a quote from an interview they gave to Guy Kawasaki :

    “Adults expect praise and financial rewards for their good work—bonuses are motivating. So people assume praise or prizes—even money—motivate kids, but there is no evidence that’s true. If anything, the opposite seems more true. Kids increasingly seek activities that bring immediate, tangible benefits, and doing something just for the joy of it fades away.”

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Annabel – Thanks so much for the resources! Man, do I have a lot of reading to do, lol

  30. Jonathan Fields says:

    Everyone – So, after writing back to back posts on this topic, I really wanted to give a little space to take in what you guys had to share in the comments, rather than jumping in and responding to many individually. Two, quick thoughts…

    1. I’m seriously blessed to have such an incredible, thoughtful community here. Thank you guys so much for sharing your time, energy and thoughts. It’s an amazing gift!

    2. This is clearly the beginning of an exploration that’s going to unfold for me and my family for quite some time.

    Oh, and one more thing – I also wanted to share a conversation I had the other day with a new friend who’s a young Rabbi in NYC. BTW – while I’m a very spiritual person, I’ve never been all that drawn to organized religion.

    We were talking about what type of religious or spiritual education my wife and I had considered for my daughter. To date, because we have mixed grandparents, as I’ve written about in a earlier post, we celebrate a number of different holidays.

    When my new Rabbi friend started talking about Hebrew school, he said something that blew me away. In explaining how they’ve put together their curriculum and approach he said, “we pretty much looked at what every other Hebrew school is doing and did the exact opposite.” He then went on to share how he thought it was relatively tragic that most kids never return to school or temple the day after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, because the process leading up to it is nearly universally experienced as drudgery.

    I asked him why and he said that there’s a longstanding, very rigid approach to religious education (not just Judaism) that tends to lean strongly toward repetition, memorization, lack of engagement and a certain mindset by those in charge that “we had to suffer through it, now so do you.” There’s very little flexibility or integration of more modern, experiential, far more engaging strategies and approaches.

    What a tragedy it is, he said, that the part of faith that is least bound by doctrine (early education curriculum and methodology) adheres most closely to outmoded, unpleasant, uninspiring approaches and practices, while the far bigger elements of daily faith which are almost always bound far more closely by doctrine, in many traditions, have been expanded and become substantially more open, engaging and dynamic.

    This just didn’t make sense to him. And, as he shared his bold new approach to religious education for kids based in engagement, experience and relevance, I have to admit, I was really drawn in both by his ideas and his enthusiasm.

    Just some more food for thought.

    And, again, thanks so much for all the incredible comments, I’ve learned so much with this post and conversation. Feel free to to keep it going if you’ve got more to share…

  31. […] Jonathan Fields did a blog post entitled: Does Learning Have To Suck? In case you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and go check it out. I wanted to comment on […]

  32. Jonathan,

    I found that I had so much to say about this topic, that I had to do a post of my own:

    Both that, and the Concrete post inspired me in so many ways. I work with a lot of kids and parents around this very issue, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. As a behaviorist, I like the idea of extrinsic motivators, because they’re real world examples. On the other hand, you shouldn’t stifle inspiration either. So I believe there is a balance in there somewhere.

    Thank you so much for this post as it gave my wife and I a really great conversation over coffee. Its especially cool to talk about when we’re talking about our future and how we want our kids to learn as well.


  33. What a topic of discussion. As a mother of two sons-one currently a Freshman in college and one a college graduate, my answer to this question is that there are no rules, no instructions and no best answers. It was a rare occasion if either one of them studied or brought books home after about 5th grade. Neither one of them was motivated by grades, but, rather, by no pass/no play.

    One of them made the deans honor roll just to see if he could do it. Why? I don’t know. Once he did it, he was over it. Could either one of them do it at any given time? Yes. How do you press the right buttons and dangle the right “carrots”? I don’t know.

    My husband and I volunteered regularly (which sometimes meant being there several days a week) in their elementary school. And, we were around for all school activities throughout their school years, including all parent organizations. (Yes, in Jr. High and High School, too)

    In other words, we KNEW what was going on all the time. This gives you some idea of the teaching that is going on and who their friends are. You have an idea of the teaching methods being used, too.

    When parents volunteer at their kids’ schools, it would stand to reason that their teachers would have more time to spend teaching the kids and coming up with creative ways to do it. It is supposed to be their expertise that motivates kids to learn, too.

    I totally suggest that you make your presence known.