. . . Teaching children is like training animals. For each task you want them to do, you must offer them a carrot. . . .You get the student to do the assignment because of some reward he’s going to get, not because he realizes that the assignment is valuable or interesting to him.
— From The Way It Spozed to Be by James Herndon,
one of the Innovations in Education series
When I was in school, the carrot on the end of the stick was ever-present as I was driven by an external pressure to succeed, instead of by the intrinsic pleasure of learning. Just as Herndon cautions in his quote, the midterm and graded report card, as well as the need for promotion, college acceptance, and lifetime opportunity, all lingered in the back of my mind as promised rewards for any current strain or discomfort. As I studied and learned, there was always the threat of the absence of these rewards as potential measures of failure.
As an adult, looking back on my education, I saw that I was cheated by the system. For those alluring carrots, I was denied the joy of learning that is my birthright. Long ago I made it my goal to overcome this way of thinking about life, and I was eventually able to free myself and return to a mental approach that is honest and immediate and that reflects my own self-knowledge in interaction with the world. That is, I have returned to the authentic nature I had as a child—full of curiosity to learn and explore without being sidetracked by a need for “carrots.”
I have not come easily to this place. I had to learn to be suspicious of carrots, to ask myself constantly to what end I was moving in my life, and whether the end justified the means; in other words, whether I was being honest and straightforward with myself.
The honesty to which I refer is an intellectual and emotional integrity typical of an individual committed to living life to its fullest. To me, life is a process, a highly individual agenda—a curriculum, if you will. We are here to experience, learn, and grow. Honest behavior is committed to this purpose; dishonest behavior denies it. To behave honestly, one must have self-knowledge and the ability to take responsibility for one’s own life. One must also be able to evaluate one’s own behavior and respect the right of others to do the same.
When I mentioned the topic of this article to a friend, he replied that my subject should be dishonesty rather than honesty, as he felt that he had always been too honest at school. The deceitfulness he did learn, he said, had not been enough for him to get good grades. This startling reaction to my subject is the very reason I have chosen it. If our system of education succeeds in convincing young people that dishonesty is necessary for survival, then the system has indeed failed!
Intrinsically Motivated Learning
Can children learn without dishonest measures to drive them? More than forty years ago, John Holt attempted to answer this question in How Children Learn, a book about preschool children who had not yet been exposed to learning institutions. In this book that has become a classic on child development, he described children in natural situations where their curiosity had free rein. They were not yet afraid to fail, and could learn from their mistakes as one must be free to do. Holt described them as assessing a total situation, deciding upon a course of action, teaching themselves methodically, and trusting insight as well as logic in figuring things out. They knew their own limitations. They grasped the structure of a learning task and, when sufficiently motivated, had long attention spans.
By the middle of the first grade, what happens to this enthusiasm for learning? What Holt described was learning anchored to dynamic self-initiated movement and interaction, as compared to the stress-anchored learning that now often predominates in our schools. Classroom teaching for informational responses—particularly at the elementary level, where the measure of success is the reaction of the teacher—is conditioning or training, not true teaching to develop young minds.
Educator Barbara Clark, writing on this subject in Optimizing Learning: The Integrative Education Model in the Classroom, stated: “The use of external rewards is another practice resulting in different effects than those desired. Research has shown that external rewards (any reward that is not the natural consequence of an activity) often become goals in and of themselves.”
John Abbott, in his thought-provoking book Over Schooled but Under Educated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing Our Adolescents, says that “Inquisitiveness drives human learning. . . . The asking of questions is, for the brain, what strong, vigorous exercise is to the athlete—it strengthens the brain’s neural-networks, and makes cognitive processes far more effective.” Abbott cites research showing how children naturally progress from inquisitiveness to authentic knowledge, that is, “the broader and more diverse the experiences are when (children are) very young, the greater are the chances that, in later life, the individual will be able to handle open, ambiguous, uncertain and novel situations.” (pages 199-200)
Abbott describes an ideal learning process where children discover how to think for themselves by building new ideas on earlier ones, instead of memorizing answers to questions they have yet to ask. This engaged learning process allows them to experience life and its challenges first-hand, thereby developing personalized knowledge.
Educators can facilitate such learning, and, when children are stuck, give them active opportunities to gain the intrinsic rewards of learning and problem solving. Children learn most effectively through their senses—by touching and manipulating their environment as they move within it. Accomplishing mastery of his own body is far more important to a child’s identity and self-concept than is the approval of a teacher. As the psychiatrist William Glasser pointed out in his book Schools without Failure, a person, “regardless of his background, his culture, his color, or his economic level, will not succeed in general until he can some way first experience success in one important part of his life.”
Honesty is first instilled through a parent’s or teacher’s trust in the child’s ability to learn. A child senses that the teacher wants to treat subject matter in such a way that the pupil can incorporate it into herself and draw from it what will be important to her particular life. The teacher also wants the pupil to be able to develop her own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs based on genuine concern and research. A good teacher doesn’t want to simply hear his own words parroted back to him. He wants his students to realize that they are capable of making their own choices, free to make these choices, and responsible for the results of such choices.
Movement—An Honest Language
Such decision-making skills require the freedom to move. Walk into any classroom of high achievers and observe the level of movement there. The children who are the best learners are alive and active in their bodies. They physically reach for information and for opportunities to express themselves, barely containing themselves in their enthusiasm for knowledge as they write, turn pages, and interact with their peers. The children who are not moving as they learn appear stressed, passive, and uninterested. In both cases, children can’t hide their unspoken attitudes about learning, which are apparent in their movement and body posture.
Why is the honesty inherent in the movement of the capable child not nurtured and encouraged in all learners? Why discourage the very behaviors that are so obviously a part of the learning process?
The simple answer is fear of change. Most of us have come through the public school system, which has become an institution in and of itself. If we have survived (and some have not), we have been shaped by it and we believe the myth that we must perpetuate the system as it is. That is to say, we must teach children to conform, adapt, and play the school game, even though we know these qualities to be profoundly lacking and not representative of the real world in which we move as adults.
In childhood and adulthood, we learn best by practicing and doing, putting our new knowledge into action, and feeling the process of growth. Educators have nothing to fear from an honest acknowledgment that motivated, self-directed learners with high self-esteem will naturally move about and make sound as they learn.
We need the courage to trust today’s children to learn actively, in an honest way, with all of their senses, instead of being passive listeners who “learn” by rote memorization.
The children who have the benefit of short inclusions of movement—especially the Brain Gym® and Vision Gym® activities—love to go to school. They’re allowing their teachers to rediscover the joy of teaching for which they chose their profession. Following the natural dynamics of integration, these children know when to move, when to rest, when to practice their skills, when to ask questions, and when to create. There is no need for extrinsic reward for children who live in a world based on the naturally honest and intrinsic joy of learning.
© 2012 by Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D.
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