Flourishing – a passion for learning

(This is the first in a series that delves deeper into the characteristics of a flourishing student – click here to read the original post on flourishing.)

I believe we are made by God to be learners and to have a passion for learning. One of the main tasks in the garden for Adam and Eve was learning – caring for and subduing the earth. The separation from God interrupted this perfect state of learning and the need to work (work as sweat and toil) entered into Adam and Eve’s reality. Today our work still interrupts our opportunities for learning. We help students experience Eden and give them a glimpse of heaven (among other things – a state of uninterrupted learning in my view!) when we bring as much true, joy-filled learning as possible into the lives of those we are entrusted to serve in our schools.

To produce a flourishing student, we must seriously attend to increasing their passion for learning. If we are not increasing a student’s passion for learning I believe we are failing in our work. A student who is a passionate learner reflects the creativity and mind of Christ.  But what is the purpose of this passion for learning? Why have we been created with this passion and why do we find so much joy in learning? John Milton said, “The end of all learning is to know God, and out of that knowledge to love and imitate Him.” In other words our learning is a seeking after God – to understand the deep mysteries God has put into the world – and then to not only have knowledge for it’s own sake, but to use it to better love him, to worship him, and to serve him.

One of our favorite sayings in education that we often repeat is from Socrates: “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” And yet we turn around and engage at times in learning processes that move students at early ages from an intrinsic, God-given joy to focus children on extrinsic rewards . . . and then continue that through high school, college, and beyond. John Holt describes this process well: “We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”

Contrast this with the kind of learning we do as adults. When we get engaged in doing some kind of learning, we move into what Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow”, when we lose track of all time and it seems somehow suspended. Schlecty, an educator/author/researcher on student engagement marvels at how school dropouts in a bar can be so mesmerized and engaged for long periods of time with an online game of Trivial Pursuit – he goes on to wonder why we can’t achieve that level of engagement in school.  How can we change schools to encourage a greater passion for learning – or to not dampen down what is already there?

Source: Creative Commons – http://flic.kr/p/6arc2n

In a remarkable experiment, researchers at the Hole-in-the-Wall Project led by Dr. Sugata Mitra placed a computer into the wall of a building in the slums of New Delhi and let it sit there, with no explanation. Within hours, and with no outside help, the children had learned to use it on their own! The passion to learn is no doubt God-given, but we must take great care as educators to not dampen, but to enhance this passion.

We know that this passion for learning is a key 21st century skill. Those who can direct their passion and develop further learning will be the leaders as suggested by Eric Hoffer: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” If we are serious about helping kids to flourish, fanning the flame of passion for learning is one of the very best things we can do to prepare them for the future. One of the most important feedback questions we might ask of our students and their parents at the end of a school year is: “Did my teaching and this school create a greater passion for learning than you came with at the beginning of the year?” Do you have the humility and the courage to ask such a question? And then act upon the data, as needed, to make changes in your school’s learning environment?

As Christian educators, increasing a student’s passion is never only self-focused – it is not just about increasing that student’s personal satisfaction or economic gain. It is about helping them to learn to live a hopeful, joy-filled life that spills over into the lives of others and reflects back joy to the Creator. In his book, Flowers for Algernon, author Daniel Keyes captures this joy:
“I’m living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed. Every part of me is attuned to the work. I soak it up into my pores during the day, and at night—in the moments before I pass off into sleep—ideas explode into my head like fireworks. There is no greater joy than the burst of solution to a problem. Incredible that anything could happen to take away this bubbling energy, the zest that fills everything I do. It’s as if all the knowledge I’ve soaked in during the past months has coalesced and lifted me to a peak of light and understanding. This is beauty, love, and truth all rolled into one. This is joy.”

Isn’t this the kind of passion for learning that we desire for all of our students?

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2 Comments

Filed under classroom, curriculum, distinctively Christian, staff development

2 responses to “Flourishing – a passion for learning

  1. Judith

    this reminds me of that day when I was helping one of the teachers with the first graders they were repeating English words on the board she was doing gestures to explain the meanings and then I noticed this little girl taking notes!! nobody told her to do so. By the time they joined in teams to work with the vocabulary she had a big smile on her face like…”yeaah I got all of them!!” then she shared her notes with her team. It was so cute!!

  2. Thanks for this series, Dan. I think our educational philosophies line up pretty much spot on!

    I’m really interested to see the practical implications of this idea in schools. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is assessment. I’m thinking about what assessment is really for (knowing what our students know and understanding what they understand) and also what it *isn’t* for (simply generating a grade.) At least, that’s my best thinking right now–always subject to change upon further reflection.

    I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about gamification in education. I have some misgivings about this approach, but here was a piece I just came across the other day that gave me a new perspective on assessment, and on grading in particular:

    http://gettingsmart.com/cms/blog/2012/11/why-a-badge-is-better-than-an-a/

    I’m still thinking about how we can assess…and grade…our students in a way that can prompt this sort of flourishing that you describe. Because grades (or badges) are still external motivators. What we really want is intrinsic motivation for our students, right?

    As I read this post, I was reminded of something Elaine Brouwer wrote in Christian Educators Journal a few years back about assessment as a “blessing” for our students. I had to do a little searching, but here’s a link to the online text of that piece: http://www.altavistaseattle.org/avs/a/journal/archives/2008-02/2008-02-Assessment.html

    Maybe the ideas Elaine is unpacking here could be helpful for the sort of classroom you’re describing?

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