Learners Who Not Only Love to Learn, but Live to Learn…
Today in one of my news feeds I came across a 2019 article from the Hechinger Report. It was the headline that first caught my eye, as it mentioned a study that found that 9th graders were uninspired to learn after years of having little voice and choice in their learning. If you’re interested in the article, you can find it here.
Though a few years old now, this article still resonates deeply for me. A dozen years ago I had the opportunity to design a secondary program based on the philosophy of designing completely personalized curriculum for each child based on their individual strengths and passions. The program for each child began with an extensive personalized interview designed to investigate the learner’s perceptions, passions, interests, and strengths. Many of the first students we had in this program were ninth graders whose parents wanted something different from the typical high school experience for their child.
Our first year, the program included around 8 or 9 students. I remember how excited we all were for the challenge of designing special, personalized, curricular programs and how eager we were to interview each learner. But I also remember how surprised (and dismayed) we were at the results of those first 1:1 interviews. We naively believed these learners would jump at the chance to express their opinions, eager to tell us all about the things they wished they could learn — things that school never taught them. But that’s not what happened. Not even close. These kids couldn’t tell us about anything they were interested in or passionate about. When asked to tell us what some of their favorite things to learn were, we received answers like, “I mean I guess I like math…” or “social studies is ok..” etc. We probed deeper with questions like “no, not what subject do you like… if you could make school about ANYTHING you wanted to learn, what would it be?” — still they couldn’t really answer. In many cases we ended up trying to suggest interests to the learners — based on what we knew about them or things their parents had shared — but this often just resulted in their going along with the ideas, simply because they had no ideas of their own.
We did a lot of reflecting on this phenomenon over the next several years. We continued to enroll students who were unable to express or articulate their learning interests or passions. It was troubling. We finally concluded that these kids had never actually been asked to be involved in making choices about their own learning. They had been stripped of their agency, denied ownership of their learning, and had their natural curiosity crushed. After all, what point is there in curiosity and agency when year after year, they had been told what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and why they should learn, all while never being asked to participate in these decisions as agents for themselves. Years of this had resulted in young people who viewed schooling as something that just needed to be endured, not as learning to be explored and celebrated. It was why these students weren’t particularly motivated to learn. It was why, if I’m honest, their worried parents had become bold enough to leave the established education system to try a school program dramatically different —even if untested.
So many schools today provide a top-down, uninspiring approach to curriculum that both teachers and students have no agency in. This results in lifeless learning — students who go through the motions working towards extrinsic incentives like grades and test scores that don’t actually foster an intrinsic desire to learn, grow, achieve, or become. The joy of learning comes from accomplishing something meaningful to YOU, the learner. If the learning doesn’t lead to outcomes that are meaningful for the learner, then the learning isn’t meaningful, and likely isn’t lasting either. Sure, we can manufacture motivation to learn using incentives or even fear (e.g. fear of failing a class or a grade etc.), but that often doesn’t result in sustained or durable learning that transfers or inspires the learner to embrace and continue the learning of their own accord and volition.
If we really want to see motivated, active, engaged learners, we need to involve them in the design and construction of their learning.
I started this post by talking about the learners I worked with to design their own curricular programs. Yes, they came into our program as lifeless learners, but thank goodness they didn’t stay that way. Once they realized the learning was in their hands, they completely transformed. Whether it was building 20 ft pyramids out of lumber in order to learn and give meaning to trigonometry, or using video games like Assassins’ Creed Brotherhood as a launching point for historical research into the American Revolution, these students grew in ways we couldn’t have predicted. They started businesses, non-profits, sought and completed internships and apprenticeships. They built, created, expressed, performed, and more. It was a wonder.
We understood very clearly that this program might not ever be scalable. But we experienced the transformation of these children first hand, from lifeless learners into “living” learners — learners who lived and embodied every aspect of their learning. And it all stemmed from giving and honoring their voice and choice in the process.
Standards and learning objectives can be taught a million different ways. The law of cosines can be taught from a text book, or it can be taught by building pyramids on the school grounds. Friction can be taught with experiments in a classroom, or by spending time with a master craftsman in a local surfboard design shop. History can be learned through writing research papers or by playing and analyzing design decisions made in a favorite video game about what to faithfully include and what to fictionalize, and why.
Learning standards are important and critical. But context is everything. Different learners need different learning contexts that are meaningful to them. But more importantly, they need to be involved in the decision making about these contexts. When we involve the learner as our curriculum collaborators and co-constructors, we create motivated learners who exercise agency and ownership over their learning — not for grades or test scores, but because they love to learn — because they live to learn.