How do children learn? Why do they even bother with it?
The best way to answer this question is to think back to how you learned when you were young. As a child what inspired you? When you were in school, what subjects did you like? Dislike? To borrow a term from the cooking diva Rachel Ray, what made your boat float?
A while back, Jeb Bush, the Bush who loves broccoli, and the King of ed. reform policies he drives into schools like a golfer with a bad slice, and whose ed. ideas might propel him towards a presidential run—or hinder him—said:
“Let me tell you something. In Asia today, they don’t care about children’s self esteem. They care about math, whether they can read – in English – whether they understand why science is important, whether they have the grit and determination to be successful.”
And he added:
“You tell me which society is going to be the winner in this 21st Century: The one that worries about how they feel, or the one that worries about making sure the next generation has the capacity to eat everybody’s lunch?”
So again. What propelled you to learn when you were young?
If you were a competitive student, did you relish eating the other kid’s lunch? Is that what and how you learned? Or did you discover that sharing was the way to go? Certainly competition is justified in sports and maybe in some other school contests, but should we be teaching children how to be the ultimate victors against everyone else? Surely competition isn’t the Holy Grail of learning.
I have to say though that despite the overuse of the word “grit” lately, when it comes to student learning, I think a certain amount of self-determination is important. But you don’t build grit in a student with narrow Common Core or any standards for that matter.
You definitely don’t build grit by beating children down with repetitive high-stakes testing. All those things are so impersonal and uncaring that they do nothing to make children want to learn…or be driven to learn against all odds.
Many children will just want to drop out!
You also don’t build grit in a child by pouncing on them like a Tiger Mom or force-feeding them bits and pieces of information around what you think they need to learn to be good students. Oh they might do well, if they are inherently strong, but it is out of fear, not grit.
Certainly some strictness is important perhaps to initially jump start some students (gently) to do their school work. But the overall goal, and wouldn’t Mr. Bush likely agree, is to get students to generate their own enthusiasm for learning.
You build authentic grit in a student by helping them find what they are really good at—that talent or spark that makes them distinct. When they learn what that is they will go forward with a sense of purpose in life. Almost nothing will get in their way.
Teachers and parents don’t need to manipulate data points. What they need is to know how to strategize—how to tap into the endless potential of their uniquely made, and sometimes gloriously unusual, students. They need to know who they are. Teachers require small enough class sizes so they can really identify with every child that walks through the door. Then they need to watch what they do and figure out when and how to intervene.
I’m reminded of my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Birmele. She was strict and she meant business. One day I received an essay back and scrawled at the top of the paper in red (she was ruthless with red ink) were these words “You are a good writer Nancy!”
My story was about a dog that saved a family from a fire. It wasn’t unusual—actually hackneyed now when I think about it—but I do recall how, at the time, I enjoyed crafting that story. Maybe Mrs. Birmele, being the good teacher she was, had observed my enthusiasm. Maybe she liked the way the story was constructed. I only wish she would have told me more about why she liked it.
What I do know, was from that point on, writing meant something special to me. Even when I made mistakes in future English classes…I was determined to be the writer Mrs. Birmele liked in me back in fourth grade! You could say Mrs. Birmele gave me a little grit.
It can go the other way too. A negative mark or a data point on a bulletin board (sometimes with a child’s picture), depicting the child as low, on the scale of 1-10, can indelibly set the course towards a lifetime of that child never knowing the kinds of things they are capable of doing well. Children faced with repetitive reminders that they need help or are failing…will come to believe they aren’t good learners. No grit there. I see nothing good in that.
The current forgotten factor when it comes to learning is that when you learn what you can do authentically well in an area, you will want to learn more about that subject. Whether it is writing, math, science, art or music…the more skilled you feel about it, the more you will want to do it. You will crave learning about it…it will be your area/s…what drives you….
You will not care as much, most likely, for the subjects you believe you are failing. That is unless you can be lifted out of that failure by—that’s right—a caring teacher!
Call it positive behavioral reinforcement. Or helping young people find their passion. Call it good teaching. Whatever you call it, it works! It’s what makes children want to learn. Whatever classes you might remember favorably are most likely the classes where you got well deserved As not Fs—where the teacher brought out the best in you.
Along with Mrs. Birmele, I was lucky to have many teachers throughout my life who accomplished this—and a few others who didn’t do it well at all.
It’s personal. And it is everything about who you are and who you will be in the world. It is why credentialed teachers who study how children learn are so important.
And last, about all that BS about Global lunch eating—it truly isn’t worth thinking about. Because if you have children and young people in a country—learning to believe in what they do—in the subjects they love—and cherishing what those subjects mean to them personally, they will automatically come up with innovations the rest of us can’t even begin to imagine.
So go eat your broccoli with your lunch Mr. Bush and try to learn what really matters when it comes to the education of our young people.