Friday, April 3, 2015

What Happened to The Wonder of Learning?

I read a lot about educational theory and research so that I can share "best practices" for better ways to teach and learn with my readers. Shared here are the ideas in a most informed and intelligent article on learning, written by Catherine L'Ecuyer, a Canadian lawyer with an MBA now living in Barcelona, Spain.[1]The article explains the fundamental importance for motivating children to learn: the sense of wonder.
This notion resonated with me, because I know it to be true from personal experience. To this
day, I have vivid memories of the excitement I had as a six-year old in Fort Myers, Florida, as I walked to my first day of school. Yes, in those days it was safe for kids to walk several blocks to school unattended. And yes, there was, at least for me, no kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, or day care.
Sauntering to school, I became entranced with all the new sights and sounds, stopping several times along the way to savor a new experience. A vivid memory was my stop at a beautiful flower I had never seen before. I physically probed the bloom, astonished at the elegant expression of nature. On that day, the prospect of school was a most joyous opportunity. It did not take long for school's pedantic nature, drills, and drudgery to squelch my sense of wonder. It was only in late middle school that my sense of wonder was resurrected, and that only occurred because I had a crush on my teacher and wanted to impress her with my learning. For many children, their inherent sense of wonder that school stamps out never returns.
Clearly, a child's state of mind affects how learning and the school environment are regarded. Among the more relevant states is stimulus seeking. That is why for example I wanted to explore the innards of that beautiful flower. Then too, there is the basic human responsiveness to positive reinforcement. If a learning experience is perceived as wondrous, it is perceived as good and beneficial, serving as incentive to have other such learning experiences. It obviously helps for a child to be aware of such perceptions.
L'Ecuyer adds the sense of wonder to the list of fundamentals of the motivation to learn. She makes the point that wonder is innate in children, especially when they are young. As a child matures, much of this sense of wonder can fade. For some people, the more they learn, the less wondrous the world seems. Among adults, scientists seem to be an exception (to a biologist, pond scum is beautiful and wondrous).
L'Ecuyer argues that modern educational paradigms are behaviorist and conflict with nurturing the sense of wonder in children. By behaviorist, she means that the guiding principle of teaching is that the environment directs learning with its emphasis on teachers, curriculum, and high-stakes testing. The popular mantra is that learning is better when it is provided earlier and in abundance. Curricula are designed to bombard students with information and testing. Do we really think that is motivating?
The problem is that children can be overwhelmed by too much too soon. Yet government policy increasingly advocates pre-kindergarten. Young developing brains do not respond well to too much stimulus, too much curriculum, and too much high-stakes testing. Children become preconditioned to expect high levels of stimulation, leading to attentiveness disorders. Children become passive and bored. The associated loss of the sense of wonder diminishes a child's motivation to cope with all this stimulus and pressure.
L'Ecuyer cites convincing research showing that compared to adults children learn at a slower pace than adults. They need more calm and silence. They are more intrigued by mystery. They need to trust in a human attachment figure, most commonly a caring mother.  Unfortunately, our educational culture assumes that we don't teach enough curriculum and don't demand enough of children. Children learn to pass tests, not love learning. Our multi-tasking culture only adds to sensory and cognitive overload that interferes with learning and mental performance in general. The family breakdown in our culture diminishes a child's trust in primary caregivers and degrades attachment to them. Schools cannot provide such trust and attachment. Nor can pre-kindergarten or day-care.
These are basic reasons why I push for a reform in education that stresses teaching learning skills to young children, as opposed to the domination of traditional curriculum and excessive high-stakes testing. I am writing such a book now. When children have good learning skills, learning stops being an onerous chore. The "Learning Skills Cycle" that I advocate begins with motivation, and motivation begins with a sense of wonder.[2]
Educational policy makers seem confused about why so many students fall behind. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States. That’s a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day. About 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time.[3]At the college level, only 59% of full-time four-year college students graduate within six years.[4]Most college data use a six-year limit because so many college students can't finish in the usual four years.
Over the last 40 years, all the educational fads we have tried apparently do not work. In this time we have had such high-profile government initiatives as "Goals 2000, New Math, Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, Charter Schools, and Head Start." Where is the evidence that any of this works? SAT scores have not improved, even declining in some years, while funding for educational has increased dramatically, on the order depending on the state of 200%.[5]
Despite much ballyhoo and funding, Head Start's effects wash out within a few years. Nonetheless, many states think Head Start did not start early enough and that what is needed is government funded pre-kindergarten. Nobody considers what this too-soon, too-much, too stressful education does to childhood sense of wonder and motivation to learn.
The key question asked by L'Ecuyer is this: Are today's educational paradigms and policies promoting the sense of wonder and motivation to learn or squelching it? While all our government programs to improve education seem valuable, the results say otherwise. Teaching is now driven by high-stakes testing. While accountability is necessary, when high-stakes testing becomes the focus of education, it poisons the learning atmosphere. The law of unintended consequences applies. Today's educational environment suffocates the wonder and love of learning for its own sake.

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Dr. Klemm is author of two books on learning: Memory Power 101 and Better Grades, Less Effort. Reviews and information can be found at his web site,

[1]L'Ecuyer, Catherine. 2014. The wonder approach to learning. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Volume 8, October 6. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00764.
[2] Klemm, W. R. 2014. Shift Away from Teaching to the Test: A Better Way to Improve Test Scores. The STATellite, 59 (1): 10-13.

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