Open thread

Published by Lori Pickert on June 12, 2009 at 11:27 PM

If an activity can be made fun, will that help a child pick up new knowledge?

The process of evolution, Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills in a relatively “effortless” manner, through processes that are “child-centered” and fun.

Schools have attempted to use child-centered and fun methods, in the belief that students' natural curiosity will lead them to take on certain, more difficult tasks, like learning to read or do fractions, in the same way they learn language or how to count, he says. But Geary argues that explicit, teacher-directed instruction will be needed for many children to learn more unfamiliar and difficult, or “evolutionarily novel information.” Evolution “has not provided the scaffolding for this learning,” Geary told me. And so “the scaffolding must come from instructional materials and teachers.” Schools should not expect students to be motivated to learn this evolutionarily novel information in the same way they are motivated to learn through social relationships. “There is no such inherent motivation to learn linear algebra or Newtonian physics,” he said. If schools help students understand that effort is necessary and important, children will have a “greater sense of personal control over their learning,” and more sustained focus and motivation as they get older, he writes in the study.Education Week: Evolution, Enthusiasm, and Science

I’m sorry, what now?

Child-led learning is “fun”, “social”, and “effortless” and works on things that are easy, and teacher-directed instruction is evolutionary and necessary to learn difficult and novel information.


Okay, well, I am going to have to disagree. Guess what? Children who are learning about something that is deeply interesting to them will not stop as soon as the work gets difficult … or “novel”. They don’t run up against the need for a new skill or a brand-spanking-new thought process and say “Wait, what?! Hey! I don’t know how to do this effortlessly — I quit!” In fact, they are motivated to learn — all. by. themselves. Amazing. But true.

Wait — is it so amazing? Because — hey! — I myself have actually experienced this! As an adult! I have been deeply interested and motivated in doing something brand new — and when I ran up against the part that I did not know how to do … miracle of miracles! … I did not quit! In fact, I figured out what I needed to do to keep going, and I did it! I learned new skills! I acquired new knowledge! And I didn’t even need someone to “help me understand that effort is necessary and important”. Golly. I figured that out all on my own.

I am reading this again, and I believe that it says — ((cough)) — that children’s natural curiosity can’t carry them through a “difficult task” like learning how to read or doing fractions. Mmm. WHAT?! Sorry, sorry. Let’s see. Everyone who learned how to read through sheer force of will and overwhelming excitement and desire, please raise your hand. Again, believe it or not, it does happen. Not possible without teacher instruction seasoned by a lecture on effort? Oh. my.

But my favorite part is this: “If schools help students understand that effort is necessary and important, children will have a ‘greater sense of personal control over their learning,’ and more sustained focus and motivation as they get older…” Yes. Because having someone else force you to learn something in a teacher-directed way, while sanctimoniously informing you that your effort is important and necessary — that is what helps a child develop more focus and motivation.




Comment by Lori Pickert on June 13, 2009 at 12:25 AM

Ha! Starting off the open thread a little ranty this weekend. ;^) My apologies!

i read another “expert” earlier this week saying that “projects are *okay* — *once in awhile* — but kids can’t learn without direct teacher instruction. i’m not stating that people don’t need teachers to learn — as if! — but simply that *children can learn to manage and control their own learning*. for instance, they can identify when they need another person’s help. whether they want help from a peer (scaffolding from someone slightly more knowledgeable) or from a teacher or expert. they can figure out *what* they need to know and *how* they want to learn it. they can — but if they are raised to be completely passive learners, they will lose that ability.

and — just to be crystal clear — i am not even suggesting that children should learn this way all the time (i’m keeping that to myself — HA) or that children will *want* to learn everything that *you* may want them to learn (parents get to make those choices — unless they let schools make them for them). but this person’s certainty that children cannot be intrinsically motivated to learn something *novel* and *difficult* is simply false. simply and utterly false.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 13, 2009 at 12:46 AM

really enjoyed this article — (contrasts nicely with the one quoted above!) —

"I felt like I had such an advantage over traditionally schooled people because I was used to owning my own education and managing my time."

Comment by Amy on June 13, 2009 at 12:50 AM

Did you click over from the article to read the press release? Here's a *wonderful* quote by Geary:

"Learning is not always going to be fun and children should not expect it to be. Attempting to engage children by making activities fun, causes those activities to become more similar to what students are already doing naturally and can limit new learning."

(My snarky aside: Apparently learning proper comma usage was not fun for whoever wrote this, because that comma between "fun" and "causes" is wrong, wrong, wrong.)

Anyway. Whether or not our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to use Newtonian physics to survive--and I would say they did, actually--has nothing to do with any particular person's innate desire to learn about it. Poor Darwin. His ideas have gotten dragged through the mud for centuries. (Social Darwinism, anyone?) I also have a problem with the idea this man has that the teacher is trying to make the activity fun, which implies that learning can't be fun in and of itself. And then there's the fact that I don't even UNDERSTAND that second sentence, really. If children think learning is will limit their learning?

I can only echo your big sigh, Lori.

Comment by melissa s. on June 13, 2009 at 03:47 AM

I liked (and laughed at) your response, Lori. Loved the "rantyness."

What struck me from the passage was the reference to linear algebra and newtonian physics. Personally, those classes made absolutely no sense and I did poorly because there was no context. Once I started the think about math and physics contextually (long after I graduated), the subjects made much more sense and were "fun!!"! And what do you get when a child comes to difficult subject matter by course of their own natural curiousity? CONTEXT, yay! And a willing, able and motivated learner.

Ok, there's my rant :-) Have a good weekend!

Comment by Ingrid on June 13, 2009 at 05:16 AM

I had a similar first impression of this extract, but after skimming the article, I'd like to play devil's advocate. I will make a disclaimer and note that I have no idea how math and science are taught these days in the public schools. Also, I'm SO tired and apologize in advance for poor grammar. : )

1. The statement Geary makes about "effort" seems to be related to Dweck's work on "Self-Theories" where, when students believe that they can change/wire/rewire/cultivate their abilities and brains through practice, they meet challenging work with a better attitude, an eagerness to learn, resiliency where their attempts failed, and success. The antithesis of this would be a student who believed in "fixed intelligence" and assumed that if she couldn't do something easily, she wasn't good at, etc. Therefore, where "effort" (perhaps more appropriately referred to as the learning process) is regarded as important (as opposed to results), students will be more motivated in the long run to persist in the face of challenging work.

2. I've been told by a couple of people who excelled in high-level math, that it was through the countless repetitions of the mechanical processes of solving particular kinds of equations and problems that the beauty and deeper meaning of an equation clicked and became clear to them. I did not do my math homework so, unfortunately, I can't say more about this.

3. I think "fun" is being used in different ways here. Geary is referring to games and scenarios that almost mask the work of learning. Why he would call this kind of learning "child-led" is a mystery to me. I think that kind of learning is the result of adults patronizing children. It feels good to work hard to learn something (i.e. learning is fun!), but not everything has to be fun in the process.

4. Finally, I think Geary is focusing on public middle and high school students whose "natural curiosity" may have been dampened and who represent a hugely diverse group of children in every way. Weather or not evolution has provided the scaffolding for us to know we need to learn high level math and science as a species seems unimportant. I would agree with Geary that teachers need to provide this scaffolding. I would love to hear from public school teachers about their thoughts on how this should be done in the public schools and how public schools can do better at fostering a love of learning.

BTW, I'm usually a lurker and love reading your blog - I learn so much!

Comment by allie on June 13, 2009 at 09:45 AM

Last September, the 20 children in my classroom came into the environment with a range of abilities and interests and knowledge. Through projects, exploration, walks in the forest, observing bugs, sewing, painting, reading books, and taking out and cleaning up all the blocks about 200 times....somehow....they are all writing letters and symbols, making connections between letters and sounds, and writing and illustrating books like it is going to save their lives. We never traced a letter, I never made photocopies, and i never sat anyone down and said, "Alright! It's time to learn to read and write!"

Exploration, interest, perseverence. Natural curiosity will bring you further in learning how to read than formal lessons will. PLUS you'll most likely read for pleasure throughout your life!

And its not just reading...its cooking and mountain climbing and nuclear physics and human anatomy and video games and photography and taking care of your dog....a desire to learn more isn't going to be squashed by a bump (or a mountain) in the road.

Thanks for giving us something to rant about...I'm in the mood for that!

Comment by Thimbleina on June 13, 2009 at 10:23 AM

I totally agree with what you say here about children being interested in something. My daughter this year has been fortunate to have the teacher she has, she is a newly qualified teacher in her 40's with 3 teenage children of her own and has been covering the maternity of the teacher that is normally in that post. She has had me daughter interested in things that I would have thought were far beyond her understanding. She has made things vibrant and given the kids all the information that they asked for and beyond so that they come home wanting to find out more. This year my daughter has gained that thirst for knowledge that I haven't seen since before she started school.

But there is a big but here. The teacher on maternity has come back as a job share and I see things slipping, she is not as interested anymore as this teacher teaches to where the children should be at with the 'National curriculum' and does not vear from this. She does not take them on lots of trips to places to learn about the subjects does not use art creatively to study subjects and thus I am afraid my daughter is loosing interest again.

Because of this we are now seriously considering home educating her as we feel that the stand in teacher was a one in a million and she will be lucky to get a teacher who will excite her like this and help her want to learn things on her own again. Unfortunatley in the UK homeschooling is not seen as a positive step by others so it would be going against the grain and will undoubtedly bring alot of comments our way if we do decide that this is the route that we are going to take.

Comment by Nancy on June 13, 2009 at 12:08 PM

Lori, can you just hang around and provide commentary (rants are fine) on all the inane things I read (hear, see, etc) about children and learning/living? really, it would help me cope. off to force my kids to do some valuable, hard stuff this weekend. enough with the meaningless, easy stuff already. [as I write that, I'm thinking, really isn't this just the oldest "children won't learn anything without school" argument in the book?] xo Nancy in NC

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 13, 2009 at 12:30 PM

amy — GAHHHHH. no, i had not read that quote. wait, my head is reeling…

making learning fun makes it too similar to what children do naturally, and what children do naturally doesn’t get the job done? isn’t real learning? *won’t create new knowledge*?!

there is a serious disconnect here about the idea of “learning being fun” — the kind of disconnect that leads teachers of young children to party things up to be more appealing, but it’s really just hiding spinach in the mac’n’cheese (which we’ve talked about here before).

the fact is that doing something new, something *hard* can give deep, meaningful pleasure to a person working on something that matters to them. from a nine-year-old who works and sweats to learn a new baseball pitch to a 90-year-old who develops a new rose … people don’t stop when things get hard if they care about what they are doing. the writer presupposes that no child *wants to do anything difficult* — he cannot imagine a circumstance in which a child would be self-motivated to learn. GAH.

thank you for pointing that out, amy!

melissa, ah, beautiful point — things making sense. that is part of what i am trying to articulate about work that is chosen and meaningful — the child sees the need for it, the use of it, its inherent meaning, and they choose to do the work because they see why it’s necessary. but the author says that as soon as it isn’t fun, children quit. and that’s not true.

your rant was much calmer than mine! ;^)

ingrid, hi and thanks for commenting. :^)

i don’t really see the connection between geary’s comment on effort and dweck’s work. there seems to be no room in geary’s thesis for a child who believes he can cultivate his abilities — and a presupposition that no child would be naturally drawn to do so.

re: math, my argument isn’t that repetition and practice isn’t necessary but simply that children can be self-motivated to work hard to achieve something. not that all learning should be fun, but that children will freely choose to do work that is not “fun” on the surface (but is deeply satisfying when completed).

re: #3, i agree with you. :^) and i think the “fun” geary is talking about is the kind of glitter that public-school teachers are apt to spill all over an activity trying to make it more appealing — see my comment above to amy.

re: #4, i agree with you that geary is thinking of a student who has no natural curiosity for learning, but i would go further and say he cannot imagine such a student. he seems to believe that children who are coddled with “fun” activities fall back into their “natural” patterns of enjoying themselves and quit when things get difficult — rather than believing that children who are in command of their own learning can draw deep enjoyment from it.

thank you for de-lurking and adding some great conversation! :^)

allie, i have nothing to add except YES and YES again — this was my experience at my school with children from age 3 to 10 … they dove each day into working harder than any teacher would have predicted they would, achieving *far*, far more than any rubric would have asked, simply because they were wholly involved in something they cared about.

thank you!

thimbleina, i hope you find a good resolution to your problem. unfortunately you don’t always get the great teacher. the wonderful thing about homeschooling is that the child can take on a lot of the responsibility for her education and begin to teach herself — and by this i don’t mean to say that teachers are unnecessary, but simply that the child begins to see where she needs to seek out a teacher/coach/mentor/peer to ask for what she needs. the control shifts to her, and i think that is a very good thing. (well, it shifts to her if the parents homeschool that way. ;^)

keep us informed!

Comment by Ellen on June 13, 2009 at 02:45 PM

I wish Allie had been my teacher when I was in elementary school!

There's another aspect to the Geary article that I'd like to bring out. What about the children who find school so easy that there's no challenge at all? I don't usually like to talk about this, because I don't feel I'm necessarily smarter, but in my school years I was very good at remembering and regurgitating what was necessary for tests and assignments. I was a straight A student without doing any of the kind of hard work he's talking about. So not only was I not having fun, I was certainly not learning that if you want something you have to make an effort (presuming you actually DO want that). I never studied. I never worked hard. I was so mentally lazy. It was work, after I left school, where I (re?)learned how to try, and try, and try until I got something right, where I learned how to care about mastering anything, where I learned conscientiousness, and many more things that aren't on the top of my head at the moment.

So three cheers for those special teachers who've found another path. The few places where school was fun - art class, French class even if I remember correctly - were the places I truly engaged as a person.

Comment by Annika on June 13, 2009 at 02:54 PM

I might have been able to let the whole thing slide without getting TOO worked up if he had not included READING in his list of tasks that are too difficult for children to get without instruction. That makes me so mad I am not sure I can be coherent.

I'm going to offer up myself and my sister as examples of how children learn to read. We were unschoolers until I was nine and she was six, at which point we went to public school. I had shown an interest in reading from a very young age, but was content to be read to until six or seven, when I asked my parents to show me the alphabet. They wrote it out for me and told me (once) how each letter is usually pronounced. I took that information and mulled it over for a while, but instead of starting to read I began writing my own stories with phonetic spelling. When I was eight I picked up a book and read it cover to cover. By the time I started school I tested at college levels in reading. My sister, on the other hand, had not yet shown any interest in reading by the time she started first grade. She was "taught" to read and it took her years of struggling to get to the point where she could reluctantly get through a paragraph. She is still a very very slow reader, and were it not for books like Harry Potter she might not read much at all.

Is it possible that she would never have been the reader I was? Of course it is, but I have my doubts.

Comment by Theresa on June 13, 2009 at 03:56 PM

Sounds as if Geary had a pretty rotten public school experience himself.What a sad way to view learning.
I wonder how he thinks Newton came up with his laws in the first place, seeing as there was no one to directly instruct him on them.
And those wacky Greek mathematicians, inventing algebra and all that. What were they thinking? Certainly there was no evolutionary imperative to discovering the relationships between math and geometry. Or was there? Architecture, anyone?

Comment by Meredith on June 13, 2009 at 05:05 PM

Lori, you always find the most interesting things to discuss here, thank you, I learn something everytime I come by :) And for what it's worth my homeschooled children are learning all the time with our without *glitter*! And for homeschooling in the UK, I have lots of friends on line that do just that and love it!! Go for it!

Comment by Barbara in NC on June 13, 2009 at 07:00 PM

Sigh, indeed.

Maybe there is no inherent urge to learn linear algebra because it is not placed in a context that's meaningful.

And (speaking as a former math teacher, I kid you not), why in the world does a child NEED to learn linear algebra (or anything else for that matter) if it can't be connected to real life/tasks/work etc.?

Oh, I forgot, for the EOG. And the SAT. And the GRE.

Comment by Cordelia on June 13, 2009 at 08:10 PM

“There is no such inherent motivation to learn linear algebra or Newtonian physics,”

Let's all be glad Newton, at least, did not share this view.... (seems he found it inherently motivating, huh?)

Comment by Dawn on June 14, 2009 at 01:54 AM

My brain is reeling...
This concept of "evolutionary novel" knowledge is fascinating. And makes me think about technology and our use of it in daily life...
How long have computers been a part of our lives... yet... if you have ever seen a so-inclined-kid navigate a computer you would know that in terms of technology... they get it!

But it is not just those tech savy whipper snappers... My ninty-year-old great uncle managed to e-mail family and friends almost daily until his passing two years ago... We are not talking just letters here... sending articles he found on the internet, etc...
Nobody drilled him on the use of technology that was just a dream... if even... when he was born! He was motivated to learn it because it was a tool he could use to achieve a connection with those he loved... Social motivation yes, but motivation just the same.

We are wired to learn and adapt... if we are so-inclined!

I think this study greatly underestimates the human ability to adapt and is going about interpreting the results all wrong... It is not about taking out the "fun" and replacing it with "drill".... it is about making knowledge relevant and therefore worth knowing!

"...if schools help students udnerstand that effor is necessary and important, children will have a 'greater sense of personal control over their learning'"
I don't get it... "personal control over their learning"
Since when did a set curriculum and kill and drill result in personal control!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 14, 2009 at 01:00 PM

ellen, good point! what lessons do bright, bored students take away about motivation and effort?

annika, funny, that’s the same part that made my husband sputter. talk about easy statistics gathering. not only is it a common example of children teaching themselves, it’s a perfect example of being self-motivated!

interesting story re: you and your sister, too!

theresa, exactly — my thoughts were this: he obviously cannot say this is true about *adults*, so … okay … he is saying that *children* specifically are lazy. terrific.

thank you, meredith! :^)

barbara — a math teacher’s perspective! perfect!

there is a trust issue here (yet again), i think — children cannot be *trusted* to see the value of learning things that are “novel”, “difficult” … they have to be forced, then they need a sanctimonious lecture to explain why the forcing was necessary.

it’s not just that children can’t be trusted to continue when things get hard, they can’t be trusted to have interests beyond the easy, playful banal, and they can’t be trusted to see the inherent usefulness of a skill! this is so insulting to children, it leaves me speechless.

cordelia, exactly! ;^) now, let’s see, we all saw that as a large flaw in his logic, yet he didn’t … as i said above to theresa, my only conclusion is that he sees *children* as lazy and unmotivated, quitters who must be supervised and managed, etc.

what a depressing view he has of children, and what a depressing view he has given me of his type of educator…

dawn, yes … so true … a severe underestimation of human — and child — capabily … and a completely wrong one. how can you create a basis for educating children with this as your foundation? how can you take these attitudes and form a mutually trusting learning relationship?!

Comment by Theresa on June 14, 2009 at 03:26 PM

"how can you take these attitudes and form a mutually trusting learning relationship?! "
You can't. He has set up an adversarial relationship from the start. No wonder he needs to lecture the children about the need to work hard. He certainly isn't going to inspire them to do so.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 14, 2009 at 09:18 PM


Comment by Barbara in NC on June 15, 2009 at 01:43 AM

Oh, I just keep thinking about this!

It just reflects so much of what is wrong with the larger educational system, like the (often) adversarial relationship between teachers and students.

It's one thing to try and introduce a concept in a way that makes it fun or playful or meaningful or whatever--we've been spending a lot of time around here, for example, playing card games that reinforce math concepts. But it's an entirely different matter to try and *trick* kids into learning (it's that whole Deceptively Delicious thing again)--watch out, if they know they're learning, they'll balk.

Do people who actually work with kids really believe this?? All the kids I know are like little sponges, voraciously eager to learn new things.

What makes my kids balk is the feeling that they are being told what to do! As long as they feel we're working in partnership, they're pretty receptive to most anything I put in their path.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 15, 2009 at 03:50 AM

barbara, YES — re: hiding the broccoli in the mac’n’cheese again, exactly — and you know, i have a weird thing against reading programs for this same reason. there is this implicit message that you need to be bribed, that you need a promise of a reward (a pizza, a toy, a book, a ribbon) to read. i don’t like it. i never let my kids participate in any reading program; indeed, i never let them know they existed, because i felt they send the entirely wrong message.

kids don’t need to be bribed to do something wonderful.

*anyway* (ranty again… ;^) yes, i agree again re: sponges … but i do think that the teachers i know would say that they deal with a real mixed bag of students and they aren’t *all* sponges. maybe it’s a symptom of beginning to think of classes and not children … focusing on problems so much that, like geary, you forget the true good things.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 15, 2009 at 03:51 AM

“NCLB and the State standards do not reward schools for pushing good kids. Once the kid can pass the test, the school is done with them.”

Comment by Amy on June 15, 2009 at 09:16 PM

Lori, you are like my psychic twin! First the scavenger hunts, now the library carrot-and-stick summer reading programs. I HATE THEM. We might go to the performances or activities that they have for free as part of the program, but I'm not going to let my kids think they deserve a reward for something they like to do anyway--read or be read to daily--because I'm afraid they'll get the idea that they should only do it for the reward. I'm afraid these programs will take good, happy readers and pervert the whole process. My sil is a librarian and a few years ago when she asked if we participated and I said no, and tried to tactfully explain why ("I want my kids to read for the sake of reading, not for a sticker and a [cheap, probably lead-filled] toy"<--I left the cheap, lead-filled part out) she got rather offended and said BUT WITHOUT SUMMER READING SOME KIDS WOULDN'T READ AT ALL.


Comment by Lori Pickert on June 15, 2009 at 11:51 PM

hee. i always wanted a twin! :D

with you 100%, p.t. seriously, is bribing the best we can do for reluctant readers? because i can tell you that all the non-reading kids *i* know read “baby books” in order to fulfill their summer reading and/or pizza hut program. you know what i mean — the easiest, shortest books they could find. are you telling me that *librarians* can’t figure out a way to introduce kids to books other than cheap bribes? and meanwhile they send out the message to all kids that reading is something that requires an additional incentive. yeah, i don’t think so.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 16, 2009 at 01:10 AM

“Mom, I hate reading. I did not want to tell you that, 'cause I know that it's your job and reading is a big deal to you, but I really really hate it. I dream of the day when I will never have to do reading again. If I was on a desert island, I would rather die of starvation, than read a book. And, if you think I am weird or something, you gotta know, all my friends feel exactly the same way.”

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