Who is Curious George? He (She) is every child who started life curious to learn about everything. Then, somewhere along the line George (and Georgina) lost their curiosity and became bored with school and learning. What happened?
All across the nation, schools are about to reopen after the summer of 2007 vacation. Some children will welcome the return to school with little or no anxiety or conflict. For many others the re-opening of school means the return to something that is deadening and dreadful. I am referring to children who are neither learning disabled nor handicapped in any way. In fact, some of these youngsters are intellectually gifted and perform quite well in their classes. Despite this, they make faces and say "yuck" when asked about school. School is an awful experience for them and they wish they could avoid it at all costs. Why?
"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." - Albert Einstein
Have you seen the excitement in the eyes of small children when they are learning and exploring something new? Do you grasp the tremendous amount of learning that occurs during the first five years of a child's life? Have you ever tried to answer the enormous number of questions with which they bombard adults when they are exposed to something new? Children are driven by strong currents of curiosity. They want to know things, explore things, and learn new things. They want to learn to read and write. They want to do experiments in science, learn about nature and the natural world and grasp the magnitude of astronomy and the universe when they look up at the night sky. What happens to these drives to know and learn after our kids enter school? Einstein died in 1955. If he were alive today his quote might have read something like "It is tragic that curiosity does not survive formal education." What is wrong with our schools that they seem to destroy curiosity and the drive to learn in too many of our children?
1. Self Efficacy, Intelligence and Task Achievement:
Psychologist Albert Bandura has written a lot about learning, cognitive development and what he terms "self-efficacy." Self efficacy is the judgment about one's ability to organize and carry to completion types of tasks. According to Bandura, once a task has been successfully completed a base line of success has been established for the person, which then gives them the needed confidence to carry out other tasks.
Where does this sense of confidence in one's ability come from in the first place? According to Bandura this has a lot to due with how children were raised. In other words, those parents who provided an environment in which the infant, toddler and older preschool child could learn to do things helped their children gain that sense of self confidence. Even for the tiny infant, looking up at a mobile over the crib, allows him to reach for objects, touch them, stare at them and learn. Later, having the opportunity to interact with the environment and continue to explore and learn about everything around him provided more self confidence in that skills and mastery are gained.
What is interesting about Bandura's learning theory is that self-efficacy need not accurately reflect a person's real ability. For instance, those children with a high sense of self-efficacy (confidence that they can learn how to do an assignment) will often be more successful than those children who may have a higher IQ but a lower sense of self-efficacy. In fact there are studies that show that people who approach new tasks and challenges with self confidence are more successful in carrying them out than those who do not. The reason for this is not that those with a high self-efficacy rating are over estimating themselves but that they have a back log of successful experiences carrying out tasks to fuel them with confidence. Bandura calls this Prior Task Accomplishment. Prior Task Accomplishment is considered to be the most powerful of the motivating forces towards facing new challenges because it is based on a history of success. Put simply, success breeds success.
2. Cognitive Development:
Jean Piaget developed an elegant theory of how the mind develops from birth throughout adulthood. What becomes clear when looking at Piaget's theory of cognitive development is that there are very real limitations in terms of what children are capable of doing intellectually when they are at a particular stage? Younger children think concretely and are not able to understand abstract concepts. The point is that if education ignores the cognitive abilities and limitations if its children then learning will not occur. Is this not why so many teachers resort to the rote memorization method that Einstein complains about?
Robert Kegan, psychologist and author of the book, In Over Our Heads, points out that whether a teacher believes in the traditional type of teaching referred to as "back to basics, or subscribes to the more modern teaching style called "teaching the whole child" means less than whether the teacher is focused on developing the minds of his students. According to Kegan, developing the minds of students has to do with starting with where they are. However, he engages them in the learning process by inviting them to go beyond where they are. What this means is that this teacher allows students to study and learn by allowing them to stand in the shoes of other people and see things from their point of view. This develops a type of thinking and living that can bring young people to a greater sense of maturity about the world and its various peoples. This type of teaching, whether traditional or modern, involves learning well beyond rote memorization.
In other words, it is important to take into account the developmental level of the child and tailor the teaching around that level so that what is achieved is real cognitive growth, the ability to understand in ways appropriate for that level and provide type of education in which the child and teenager can be organically involved. Kegan is building on what Piaget discussed in terms of cognitive development.
3. Parental Involvement:
There are a variety of studies that demonstrate the fact that parental involvement in the learning process of their children is enormously important in helping to develop not only their minds but their continued interest in learning.
One example of parental involvement in learning is reading to children from as early an age as possible. Children love to be read to by their parents. During this reading process, they interrupt, ask questions, make up their own versions of the story and, in these ways, actively involve their parent. They often ask that the same book be returned to over and over because it holds some wonderful fascination for them. It is important for the father or mother who is doing the reading, to allow for the interruptions, questions and new versions of the story. The entire process is fun and communicates a positive attitude about reading and learning.
Several years ago research in Japan showed that parents there are directly involved in helping their children with homework. For some strange reason some parents in the United States mistakenly came to believe that to help their children with homework is to do it for them and not allow them to be responsible for their school work. This of course is not true. Instead, parents helping children with their homework reduces a lot of anxiety that youngsters sometimes have about their assignments. Of course, the amount of activity on the part of the parent for an assignment will depend on the difficulty of the homework and the amount of assistance requested by the child.
It is most important that parents be patient with their children while assisting them. Assignments can arouse anxiety in parents when it reawakens their fears and doubts about their school experiences. As much as possible, the emphasis needs to be on fun and reassurance. Thereby, doing homework becomes a cooperative process and one in which child and parent can spend some quality time in a learning activity.
For the parent who may not know how to do an assignment it is important to realize that both at the local public library and on the Internet, there are people and resources available to help.
4. Teacher, Classroom and the School:
Perhaps what is most important in looking at the fate of children's curiosity and drive to learn is the school, classroom and the teacher. There are so many children who begin school with a sense of anticipation and excitement only to end up as so many do complaining that school is "boring."
I am always interested in understanding what people mean when they use the word "bored." According to the Oxford American Dictionary, bored is defined as "feeling weary because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one's activity." However, it is not as obvious a word as may first appear.
What would cause someone to lack interest in an activity?
There are several possibilities:
1. An activity may be too easy and become boring because it presents no challenge and no real reward.
2. When an activity or problem is too difficult and overwhelming a person may experience boredom because they have no way of grasping or understanding how to deal with the problem. Therefore, there is either no reward or the danger of failure.
3. The idea, activity or problem is presented in such an unimaginative way that it dampens or even drowns natural curiosity.
4. Instead of the classroom being a place for lively activity in which learning is fun and is designed to fit the cognitive level of the children while helping them to beyond to the next level, the emphasis is on such dampening strategies as:
- Strict classroom management
- Rote memorization without any real comprehension
- Silence in the classroom
- Scolding children as a form of control
- Utilizing homework as a punishment, which flies in the face of making it interesting and fun
- Boring lectures, lectures, lectures
5. Children cannot possibly learn when classrooms are interrupted by disruptive children who suffer from a variety of disorders such as ADHD, mental illness, bullying, etc. The result of these types of disorders is that these youngsters create so much disruption in the classroom that the teacher is fully taken up with attempting to control this child or children and this prevents any learning from occurring. Also, other children feel frightened and intimidated by these sick youngsters.
How We Learn:
All of the comments so far do not address the essential question: why do children begin their lives eager to learn only to lose that enthusiasm after they enter the school system?
It is the opinion of this writer and many others that children do not lose their eagerness to learn but only their eagerness to go to school. Despite the fact that an enormous amount of information has been learned about how we learn and about how the cognitive and memory process unfolds from birth onwards, by and large we conduct school and class in much the same way as was done during the nineteenth century. Children are subjected to lectures and demonstrations, are asked to memorize facts and are given homework assignments that provoke fear, distaste and the wish to avoid having to do them.
For example, infants do not learn to speak by conjugating verbs and learning grammar. Instead, they hear the speech of their parents and others around them and start to imitate what they hear. There is an organic and natural process that occurs that results in delightedly reinforcing the sounds that mimic speech until the child actually begins to speak. Yet, in most school classes learning foreign languages does not begin until the 6th grade and involves learning long lists of conjugations, grammatical rules and regulations and attempting to master the awful "subjective tense." How many of us would learn to speak by age two and three if we had to first master the "subjunctive tense?"
Our Gifted Children and "No Child Left Behind"
When we discuss education it is important to understand that children run a wide range of abilities and needs and that no one school or type of education is appropriate for everyone.
"No Child Left Behind" is President Bush's program to improve reading and math scores for children across the country. While the title of the program sounds noble and worthwhile, in reality, it has created a lot of problems. Number one among these problems is that schools are now spending their time and energy preparing children for standardized tests in math and reading. The result is that creative teaching and learning are being sacrificed for the purpose of performing well on these tests. While scores may improve, that improvement has nothing to do with the ability to think, reason and understand the world from the points of view of other people. It also directs enormous amounts of attention to the lowest performers in the nation. While every child does need to learn to read, write and do arithmetic, what becomes of those children who are already capable of doing these things and at an advanced level?
The August 20th, 2007 issue of Time Magazine (Volume 170, Number 9), published an article entitled "The Genius Problem." The article is disturbing because it cites statistics that reveal the awful fact that we spend very little money, as a nation, on providing a stimulating education for gifted children whose IQ's range from 145 and upward. These young people are a vast resource for the nation and the world. Yet, large percentages of them drop out of school because they are bored and unchallenged. Over and again, the article cites of examples of these children not being allowed to skip grades even though they have clearly mastered the curriculum. Research clearly demonstrates the fact that these children benefit from skipping grades because working at levels appropriate to their Mental Age rather than their Chronological Age keeps them motivated and interested. (Mental Age is defined as the age at which a child is able to think and reason and Chronological Age is the actual age from when the child was born).
Many schools, in an attempt to meet the needs of gifted children, provide "enriched programming" for them that is supposed to keep them interested. In actuality, most of these programs pile on huge amounts of homework based on the false notion that more homework equals better education.
The gifted, such as Albert Einstein, Bill Gates (Microsoft), Marie Curie (physicist), Pablo Picasso (artist) and many others, follow their own curriculum, choosing to study what they want according to their interests. For many of them, the fruits of their genius and efforts show up at very early ages. Einstein was about 16 years old when he figured out his theory of relativity. Yo Yo Ma gave public cello performances at age 8 and Marie Curie could read at age 4. Tiger Woods was a gifted golfer at age 3.
These are examples of individuals who succeeded despite and not because of the educational system. How many more of the people with the same abilities are lost forever because they "give up?" I knew of one man who was brilliant to a degree that was awesome. He spent his life working in the United States Post Office. While there is nothing shameful about postal work it was well below his natural abilities.
We need to make our schools places where children will learn and in ways that are fun, stimulating and full of opportunity for success. To do this we as parents, school personnel, psychologists and social workers, must insist on the best possible teachers with the highest possible salaries. We need to hire college graduates with the highest possible grades who show a passion for teaching and learning and who understand the importance of educational psychology, cognitive developmental psychology and fostering social maturity in our children.
Not only do we need imaginative and creative teachers to make our schools come alive for students but we need much smaller classes. It is just not possible to have a positive learning environment when classrooms contain thirty and more students.
We also need to provide the learning environment appropriate to the cognitive and intellectual needs of the students. Gifted children do not need "no child left behind" types of programs and those with poor skills do not need to feel overshadowed by the gifted being in the same classroom and learning in the same way.
We need to prevent "Curious George" from losing his curiosity and instead helping him foster that drive to learn for the rest of his life.
Your comments are welcome and encouraged.