What happened to my son's passion for learning, his overwhelming curiosity, and his constant drive to produce? These are questions that I've asked myself over the past 8 years of my son's formal education beginning in Kindergarten at our community public school. Prior to these years, he quite literally filled our house with his writings and drawings. We bought enough reams of card stock to fill a small warehouse. In addition, we had boxes of markers and crayons, along with tape, glue, and scissors. He was constantly producing stories related to his life experiences connected to Thomas the Tank Engine and SpongeBob SquarePants. Not only did he create his own written and illustrated stories based on the characters from these TV shows, he also created physical, action stories by building the characters out of Legos and then narrating a verbal story as he manipulated them. He even developed stop-action-video stories with his iPod and voice-over narration. He was totally immersed in these literacy activities almost non-stop daily, and all the while, he verbalized these stories out loud as they came to his mind, similar in concept to reading out loud, but instead of reading, he was creating his own story.
We constantly read aloud stories to Caleb (all names are pseudonyms) since the time he was born. When he wasn't listening to us read to him, he was either listening to books-on-tape, or watching educational shows on TV for children (Thomas the Tank Engine and SpongeBob came a bit latter). His life was filled with the narrations of stories, so it was quite natural for him to integrate these stories into his own life as he became capable of speech, drawing, and manipulating objects such as Legos, Connecting Blocks, and action figures.
Caleb spent his preschool years in a child development center (CDC) that strongly fostered children's intrinsic passions for learning. The center mimicked my personal (as a parent) and professional (as a teacher) experiences with elementary schools, which spans almost 35 years. They developed curriculum related to the real topics taught in elementary schools. For example, when they taught a unit on space, the staff read books to the children about space (and children could choose their own books to be read to them), and then the children developed self-created projects associated with what they were learning, for example: finger paintings, 3-D models of the planets with construction paper and with Legos, and self-made booklets about the planets. The results were that Caleb became obsessed with everything "space." We read nonfiction books about space to him at home that he had picked out at a second-hand bookstore (FYI: nonfiction books abound at second-hand bookstores, possibly due to many children's interest in fictional story books instead), he created his own booklets at home about space along with 3-D models built from Legos and cardstock; he even wove his zeal over space into his fervor for Thomas and SpongeBob by developing action stories with their play figures. Caleb was weaving his passions for learning that were being sparked at the child develop center into his play-life at home. This was an example of authentic, school-to-home curricular relationships based on a child's intrinsic motivation for learning.
During Caleb's years at the CDC, examples of his work were continually sent home with him, so we knew about his accomplishments and could give him recognition for his efforts and creativity. Children need validation from their parents and teachers because they aim to please the adults in their lives. This praise helps to further fuel a child's motivation for learning and spurs him onward and upward. Because Caleb was so inspired over learning about space, he intrinsically learned to read words and write words that were related to space. This literacy knowledge formed the foundations for him in learning about other topics being taught in his classroom. He learned to be inquisitive, to explore his natural curiosities, and to create and produce literacy. He constantly asked questions about words he didn't know and ideas that he wondered about. His world knowledge and language skills exploded!
Teachers play an essential role in a child's motivation for learning. A teacher's enthusiasm for what she's teaching and her love for watching children learn can be very inspiring for children. Whenever we dropped Caleb off, picked him up, or visited the CDC, the teachers' excitement over what was happening in the classroom was powerfully evident. They were passionate about what they were doing; we could hear it in their voices and see it in their faces. Children, too, can sense when teachers are excited and thrilled about what they're teaching. They pick up on these emotions and feel them, too; and as a parent, I was thrilled to watch my child so passionate about learning; I just knew that his passion would continue into his formal school years and lead him into experiencing all the joys that learning has to offer, I knew this from my own 35 years of personal experience as a teacher and parent... however; I was tragically mistaken.
Once Caleb started Kindergarten at our community public school, and continuing through all of his elementary years, his passions for learning were slowly and systematically killed-off. How did this happen? How was this accomplished? Why did my son, who was so inspired to read, stop reading? Why did my son, who was so inspired to write, stop writing? Why did my son, who was so inspired to ask questions about the world around him, stop asking questions? The answers to these questions have taken me many years, seven to be exact, to figure out. I need to let the reader know some background information about myself so that she or he can put my answers into perspective. I was an elementary school teacher for 14 years. After retiring, I have been teaching elementary methods courses to student teachers for the past 14 years, and I continue to teach both children, and adults, and be passionate over what I am doing. Caleb is my third child; and he has two adult siblings, who graduated from the public school system. So, in short, I have been a teacher for almost 30 years and a parent for almost 35 years. In contrast to my own teaching, and what I've observed with my older children, Caleb's elementary school drastically differed in many ways that all add up to the death of his love, his passion, and his motivation for learning. From my past experiences, I knew that Caleb's learning environment at the CDC can be, and I thought would be, continued into his elementary school... I was wrong.
Up to this point in this article, I have described a learning environment that fostered children's intrinsic motivations for learning, an environment that I personally know can continue and be replicated in elementary schools. But instead, what follows is an account of how Caleb's motivation was systematically destroyed.
He was not allowed to choose his own books for reading. A book bag was sent home each night in the early grades that had short, boring stories, mostly about girls and relationships, something he cared nothing about, in addition to a forced reading aloud by him to us, and he had to fill out a reading time sheet. This practice continued into the upper elementary grades, with the books being replaced by short novels of similar type, along with a summary report, and time sheet. Reading these assigned books that he didn't like, took the place of our much-loved and treasured time of parent-child reading of books that he was so passionate about. That inspirational shared reading experience was exterminated.
Writing assignments were sent home for parents to figure out how to do with their child. No directions were included, and no instruction precipitated the take-home assignment. The topics were not related to books being read in the classroom, and Caleb didn't have any choice in the topic. I was left to teach him how to write it at home. Needless to say, his intrinsic passion for writing was extinguished.
For the next seven years, very little of Caleb's graded school work was sent home, so we had virtually no idea how he was doing, and consequently, we were unable to give him any credit for his efforts, because we didn't have any evidence of his activities. We couldn't even give him any recognition for earning good grades, because the school didn't use letter grades-we were left with little to NOTHING for seven years. This is a great way to annihilate a child's motivation for learning, and it worked.
Math assignments were sent home almost nightly for him to do. Most of the assignments covered new skills that had just been introduced in school. I knew this because, as I said, math assignments came home almost nightly and I could track the skills that had been covered. This ultimately put the teaching responsibility onto me, the parent, and although, I knew what and how to teach him, I knew this was not right, and the practice ultimately defeated his motivation for learning math.
Because I was responsible for teaching my son at home essentially untaught school work that was being sent home with him, this put a great strain on our relationship. Whereas I was previously in the position of encourager, supporter, and promoter, engaged in his passions for learning; I was now forced to be in the position of educational jailor, because imbedded into the ever looming school work being sent home, was the impending threat of punishment at school if he didn't bring it back COMPLETELY finished, partially did not count. Even though there were times I had questions over his school work, teachers didn't volunteer to be called or emailed at home, and they were not to be bothered during the school day. Due to this school related practice of constantly sending virtually untaught school work home, my relationship with my son was extremely compromised. I was forced into the role of being his elementary teacher without having any of the benefits of context that goes along with it. I was constantly operating from very little to no background information regarding the school work that was sent home for him to do.
Parent teacher conferences were all student-led at his school, so parents could not bring up any concerns, and even if we could, we worried about the blowback Caleb might suffer. Teachers have the power to take out their emotions of revenge on the children in their classrooms without being witnessed by other adults. Most of the time, the target of their revenge has no idea what is happening; after all, how could he, he's a child! But to assume that teachers always have the best interests of their students in mind is a false and deceptive assumption. Parents need to take action to combat the systematic killing off of their children's intrinsic motivations for learning!
Parents have the power to institute changes in their community schools. School superintendents, principals, and teachers are held accountable to the school board of each community. Parents should address their concerns directly to this body of administrators. Over my more than 30 years of teaching, I have seen on multiple occasions where a single letter by a parent to the school board was enough to cause district-wide change. Parents are also welcome to address the school board during their meetings and discuss issues that concern them. Parents have a powerful voice, and they should use it, but I strongly encourage them to go immediately to the top, which is the school board, when they have a concern, for the sake of their child's safety in his school building.
Timothy G. Weih is an associate professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, USA. He advocates for the well-being of children through research, teaching, and publications.
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