21 August 2006

How do you teach your kids to love learning?

Prompted by this post at A Blue Flavored Blog, Lifehacker asked its readers about how they motivate themselves to continue learning once they finish school. Plenty of interesting responses, but it got me thinking less about myself, and more about how I can pass a desire for lifelong learning to my kids. (I'm feeling myself getting into back-to-school mode.)

We ask a lot of questions in our house ("Why do you think that rosebush has thorns?" "What will happen if you go to sleep with that rubber band wrapped around your finger?"), and we're enthusiastic about lots of topics and experiences. We're constantly Googling for answers and Flickring for pictures. I don't doubt our kids see how much we enjoy learning new things. But how do we get them to want to learn when the learning is hard?

I like to think of myself as an intellectually curious person, but I tend to gravitate toward projects and activities where the learning curve isn't so steep. In other words, I'm a safe learner; I go for the stuff I'm pretty sure I'll be good at. And yet, when I think back on the most mentally stimulating times in my life -- the times when my learning shot through the roof -- they were generally the times when I was out of my element and uncomfortable.

Learning to love (or at least work with) challenges is one of the keys to a good, productive life. As much as I know this, it's hard to sit back and watch my kids grapple with discomfort. Grapple they must -- I KNOW this -- it's just hard to know when the grappling is becoming something truly painful, possibly even traumatic. When to jump in and help? When to hang back and let them figure it out? One of the hardest calls as a parent.

My point? None, really, just food for thought, and hopefully for discussion. How do you foster in your kids a love of learning and/or tolerance for challenges?

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Personally, I had a traditional 'school' education here in the UK, which included a private school for several years. I think in my case, partly thanks to my own ego, I enjoy learning. Obviously, now I am my 'own man' I learn about things I like (as opposed to the curricula I had to follow in school).

However, I'm now father to a 1 year old and am starting to think about how I can foster a love of learning as she gets older.

I have been recommended this book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0761512764/102-4394457-8778516?v=glance&n=283155 and while I have yet to get stuck into it, it seems to feature a lot of 'common sense' ideas that I shall follow...and hopefully I will overcome my desire to 'teach' her and will instead help her learn to love learning.

PS. I love parenthacks!

with my daughter we quickly had to be comfortable outside of that 'safe' learning point. there have been many times when i have had to tell my daughter "i don't know, either, let's go look it up!" she has always been very interested in learning - no real need to motivate - but lately, as she has her own library card, i've encouraged her to pick out at least one non-fiction book along with her others. i've been surprised what she's picked out! i think just being child-led and helping them learn more about things they're already interested in is a great way to encourage learning.

My youngest son who is four can tell you every tertiary character in all the Star Wars movies, and can hum their particular theme songs but is reluctantly skeptical about the alphabet. At one point, I made up a game with him where I made a maze out of his old wooden alphabet blocks, and his star wars lego minifigs, whereby I would ask him to move Anakin to the letter B and so on.

Kirsten: you reminded me of one of Stu's great parent hacks:

http://www.parenthacks.com/2006/01/look_it_up.html

Just reminding kids they can find out their own answers, and then accompanying them on the journey, does wonders.

My 4-yr-old daughter attends a regular traditional pre-school, which we supplement on our time with learning from books, movies, the internet (GOOGLE!), and the world at large. Every Sunday we go to the library and get books and movies, which are becoming more and more educational at her own request (March of the Penguins is great, for example). She has a large collection of stuffed animals, which we use to talk about all the different kinds of animals there are, and where they live and what they eat, and what groups they're in (marsupials, amphibians, etc.) - and we integrate the conversation into the play: "Does your koala miss his friends back in Australia? Pandas like to eat bamboo leaves, not hot dogs, silly!". We teach math with cooking ("how many rolls do we need to cook if Daddy wants two? How many more do we need? What if everybody wanted two?"). When an accident happens, we talk about the lessons we all learned from it. The key, I think, is to make kids see - unobtrusively as possible - that everything you do is a learning experience... and I find myself saying often in her presence "wow, I didn't know that. I learn something new every day!".

I do my best to force my kids to read things that enable them to survive. When we go to a restaurant, they have to read the menu. When we go food shopping, they have to read the packaging, including the nutritional labels. If they do this, they can ask me all the questions they want. This has, seemingly, given them a sense of "Reading will save my ass." Now, my son, 14, agrees that learning is a good thing for life, not just for school.

Also, I put my learning process on display as much as possible. I make a big deal about how much I enjoy learning. When they talk, I listen and marvel at the things they teach me, marveling out loud. This seems to inspire them to want to teach me, and since I'm smiling, seems to prompt them to smile when it is their turn to learn (most of the time).

One of my boys was a reader/listener from the get-go. He was as likely to pick up Readers Guide to Home Repair as he was Goodnight Moon, and when he brought it to us to read, we read. He read Newsweek and Sesame Street magazine, our encyclopedia and his.

While his brother won't sit still for adult reading material (hmm, not quite what I meant) he still asks great questions. I usually make him try to answer them himself, and encourage him to find multiple possible answers. If he can't reach his teddy in the crib, I suggest using a long shaped toy to nudge it to the side instead of simply getting it for him.

I think the hack about fostering independence in our children goes hand in hand with fostering a love of learning. We demonstrate what we value and they learn by watching and listening to us.

I learned to love learning by watching my parents love learning. One thing I noted very consciously as a child was that my mom was never distressed about not knowing something, not embarassed or ego-involved - her focus was always 'if I don't know it, I will learn it now!' She was always excited to learn it with me. So when I asked impossible questions, we'd pull out the encyclopedia (oh, for Google back then!), and learn.

I chose early schools for my kids with an eye toward that same process - learning to have a passion for finding out was important to me. It is a good 'habit of mind' to always ask, wonder, challenge, pursue. (The Habits of Mind series is a set of books for educators, which I found at ASCD.org - very good tools for thinking about teaching how to think, and learn by thinking, asking, and pursuing.)

Fostering the passion is only one part, though. IMHO, there's passion (which usually relies on talent or interest that is already there but just needs feeding), and then there's the whole 'craft' side of things. In our family, we teach our kids that every task in life has both aspects - there is talent, and there is craft. Talent is what you are born with, and it can be teensy or huge. Craft is what you make yourself, the skills, discipline, effort, education (and so forth). That't really only limited by how much you put in.

We're clear that you can go very far on talent alone, but it is the craft that will pull your hiney out of the fire if you overshoot your talent. And that craft is what gets you far when there's not a lot of talent there to start with. We're also clear that craft is not a goal but a process, and it goes on gradually, refining and enhancing skills as you go.

This is in large part why we encouraged our oldest to take up Tai Ji (he showed the initial interest himself), rather than something more 'goal based' like kids karate (where many kids we know focus on the next belt, not the process). He's spent a year refining how to learn, learning how to practice, learning how to pay (more) attention in class, learning how to pick up nuances from other learners, learning how to focus (more) when he'd rather do something else... he still doesn't have mastry of the basic Yang 8 Form, but he's refined so much of how to go about learning, how to identify what he needs to proceed the next step, how to work in a system that doesn't fit him ideally, etc. That's the hard part of learning, the craft of it. Knowing that in Tai Ji, there is no final goal, no perfect, no 'done', but that what you aim for is always enhancing what you know, refining and adding... that was important knowledge for him. Many things can teach that - music, art, etc.

I don't think it hurts too much that I'm still learning how to learn (the craft) myself. So again, model model model! They'll follow where you lead more than you think they will... I don't love the hard parts of learning, but I admire the discipline of them (even when I'm struggling to master that discipline myself), and that shows, too.

When my 3yr old daughter asks a question, I often reply with a "What do you think?" or "Hmm, let's try to figure that out." If she balks at trying something, I will tell her that she "can do hard things" and if she can't do it now it might be because it is something that "takes lots of practice to learn." Now when she has trouble with something (physically or mentally) she says "I just need more practice!" If only I had had that attitude when I took flute lessons, and Spanish lessons, and drama classes, and ...

I believe Hedra nailed it on the head about the love of learning. As a home schooling mom of 4 children from teenage to preschool, this is always the quest. How do I get my kids to enjoy what we're learning?

Well, the first thing is to be the example. Show them you still love to learn new things and share it with them. Also, let them discover their interests and run with it. It's amazing how many 'subjects' you can cover on how do I create a robot? Their initial interest will foster new interests and so on then learning is no longer a chore. It's fun!

I know I enjoy learning what I'm interested in but I don't think of it as learning so much as I think of it as spending time in something that is exciting to me. Hence, learning!!

As homeschoolers, my kids & I find ourselves running to Google so often that I started calling us "homeschooglers" instead. My husband & I noticed that both of us learn best by immersion--getting interested in a subject and then really throwing ourselves into it full force, while other interests fade to the background for a while. We decided to give our kids the freedom to learn this way too, and we've had a blast.

I write a lot about great educational resources--games, toys, books, websites, etc. Homeschooling blogs are a treasure trove for this sort of info, and I've been trying to make all those 'homeschooler's secrets' accessible to parents of school kids as well.

I also agree with Hedra's point about passion being only half the picture. Some skills (like playing a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language) come only through repeated practice, which may lose its fun after the first flush of enthusiasm. It's important to help kids push through the dry stage in order to master the skills they need to do what they want to do. But I think kids understand that, if you're very frank about the learning process. Sometimes I'll say "You just have to trust me. This takes perseverance now but you'll be so happy you pushed through." And then we talk about how hard their little brother worked to be able to walk, how doggedly he practiced. Now it's effortless. The older kids totally get the point. They'll talk about piano practice being like the baby learning to walk. "Mom, I can't wait until I can sit down at the piano and RUN!"

It's so great to see so many people talking about how one encourages kids to love learning. I never feel like school does enough. I love supplementing my kids' education, but, I found that I kept losing the great internet links I would find before showing them to my kids. So I put together a blog to keep track of them for myself and to share with others (http://nuggetsofknowledge.typepad.com). As well, I love taking the kids to the library and reading with them, even though they can read to themselves.

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