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…
Join our Email List for Weekly Updates
And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...