Why Kids Learn (a.k.a 'The Seven Reasons Every Teacher Must Know WHY Kids Learn!')
I’ve been in the classroom for 16 years and doing this blog for about 18 months. I don’t have a Master’s Degree in anything, nor am I pursuing one. I don’t like most edu-books and haven’t done independent research on how or why kids learn or don’t. I consider myself thus supremely qualified to write on this topic.
There will be no footnotes.
There are 7 Basic Reasons Kids Learn. I number them to increase clicks to this post and to lend artificial credibility to what is essentially an opinion piece.
1. They Learn Accidentally
Kids learn while playing, or while caught up in other things. Everything from blocks and unstructured time as a little person through video games or online arguments as a teen – information, good or bad, is created, encountered, or absorbed. This one is so very important and can be crazy effective – but it’s the one most threatened by the Cult of Assessment and our own unwillingness to Defy the Beast.
It also gets trickier to create these opportunities intentionally as students get older.
2. They Learn From Family & Loved Ones
We all know the value of parents reading to their children. In a perfect world they take them to museums or musical performances, or travel places promoting conversation and reflection. How many times a day does a parent or sibling overtly attempt to explain a ‘why’ or a ‘how’ to a little kid?
But they learn all sorts of other things as well – attitudes towards authority, or learning, or society. How to solve problems (in good ways or bad). What matters and what doesn’t. Where they fit in the world.
What they’re worth as an individual.
This is the stuff we’re quick to bring up when people start blaming teachers for everything, and probably the biggest factor shaping what a child KNOWS and who he or she IS over which we have almost no control.
We also go to it as a cop-out when our calling becomes difficult. Sorry, educators – but it’s true.
3. They Learn Because They Like The Subject
This is the ideal. Those kids who keep wanting to know if they can leave your class to go finish something in Engineering? They tend to get good at engineering. That girl who reads voraciously? She tends to get pretty good at reading. And don’t get me started about young people truly devoted to their choir, marching band, baseball team, or speech & debate.
Of course, we have almost no control over this going into a new year. And it’s easy to ruin this passion even in the best of them if we’re not careful – which is terrifying. But still we try to nudge and ignite and encourage, right?
Wait – we DO try to fan these embers, YES?! Hello?
4. They Learn Because They Like The Teacher or Peer Group
I have mixed feelings about this one.
There are students who find me far more entertaining and caring than my friends and loved ones can fathom, based on what they know of me in my other, supposedly ‘real’ life. Because of this, these students will often attempt things they wouldn’t otherwise try – books out of their comfort zone, writing until their hands hurt, talking through a skill AGAIN so that I can give them full credit.
They will play school because of all the love and acceptance flying around, just like in those horrible motivational memes and Garfield posters. “They don’t care how much you know…”
At the same time, I worry this won’t transition to the next teacher they get, who may be perfectly adequate, but to whom they don’t feel the same connection. I don’t want them to be good at my class (and let it stop there) – I want them to get better at being learners, no matter what the circumstances or personalities involved. I want them to become better versions of themselves.
I know, I know – but I’m idealistic and delusional that way. Shut up.
5. They Learn Because Of Grades / Fear / Pressure / Rewards
This may begin from above – parents, or even the school system itself – but often becomes internalized. Either way, this is a stress-driven type of learning with little lasting value.
It might be about staying eligible for band or sports or whatever they're into and like. It’s often about a sense of survival, and ‘getting through’. Sometimes it’s also about college acceptance, parental approval, career success, or other specific stressors - other times it’s more panophobic. They couldn’t say exactly why, but face a consuming terror of veering off the assigned path.
I did informal surveys of many of my best students last semester, and discovered that these ‘best’ kids in terms of grades, behavior, organization, and personal responsibility, almost universally hated or at least disliked everything about their school day. A few had one teacher or subject they found tolerable, and most had activities or extra-curriculars in which they found fulfillment, but the bulk of each day and long hours into each night were have to, have to, have to.
It was all about the grades. The future. The system. The idea that there would be anything of value to be learned along the way they found… quaint. Of course they resisted being quite so blunt, being the ‘good kids’ and all – you don’t have 104% in every class by proudly slandering the system.
But learning and loving and new worlds of ideas weren’t really factors. If anything, those would be distractions to winning at the game.
6. They Learn Because of Long-Term Goals
This one is pretty rare if you eliminate the vague terrors in play above. There are a few, however, who are specifically chasing a degree in veterinary medicine, motorcycle repair, or that study abroad opportunity in Monaco. They press on because they know what they want.
At least, they think they do – which for our purposes works just as well.
On the one hand, these kids aren’t necessarily driven by a love of learning… on the other, though, they are at least self-motivated, making the learning they accept as necessary a bit richer and more meaningful.
7. They Learn Against Their Will
If you torture them enough, confine them in stale rooms and badger them into compliance…
If you test them repeatedly, then pull their electives, their after school time, their freedom to sit with their friends at lunch, until they pass…
If you manage through attrition to wear away or cripple enough about themselves they’d otherwise find meaningful, strong, beautiful, or useful…
If you constantly elevate those who comply, who understand, who feel and think as we demand, and denigrate those who can’t - or who for whatever reason won’t…
They may eventually give you enough to count as learning. They may remember enough to secure their release from the system. They may even move on to the next round of ‘education’.
But they’ll never forgive you, or the system, or those who participated in the process. You know why?
Because they’ve learned.