Learning By Heart or Learning From Heart—Have We Forgotten How to Love Learning?

Like millions of other parents, I help my children do their homework every day after school.

After a little free time and a snack, we sit down together and I let them start. I help whenever I can. I try not to give them answers. Whenever they don’t understand something I try my best to explain it in such a way that the answer becomes obvious and they reach it themselves. Because of their autism, it’s always a bit of a mental acrobatic act to figure out exactly how to accomplish that. It doesn’t always work.

Over the last two years, I have seen JB become so proficient in his work that he doesn’t even need me to help. He just likes it when I review his work and he gives himself check marks next to his answers. He never gets anything wrong. When I told his teacher about this she laughed and told me one thing I don’t have to worry about is JB’s confidence, he has more than enough to spare.

“He loves to learn,” she said.

My other son, Joachim, JB’s fraternal twin, does very well in school too but he has trouble focusing.

Doing homework together seems to help him. I suppose he feels that since his brother is doing it too, and I am so proud when he answers correctly, that it’s not a chore but a pleasure. At least I hope so. I loved to learn. I could never understand others who complained about having to do homework. I felt good about myself when I got answers right when I understood what was being taught because I was up-to-date on my work at home.

Why Do Some Children Love to Learn and Others Don’t?

Watching the boys doing their work the other day I began thinking about what JB’s teacher had said and tried to understand why some children love to learn and others don’t. Is it that in some homes learning is the most important thing and parents dole out more praise and affection for high marks rather than sports accomplishments? Or do teachers convey the love of learning and imbue their students with it, turning learning into an asset rather than something to be endured?

How Much Homework is the Right Amount of Homework?

These days there is a lot of debate about how much homework is too much or too little. There are stories in the news of 11-year-olds lugging home ten or more pounds of books each night to do their work. Others talk of children going to be at 11 p.m. during the week in order to be able to finish everything they have been assigned. Parents are outraged, educators say they have no choice, and others simply decide how to deal with it on a personal level.

A friend recently suggested I try to enroll the boys in the local Arts Based school because their curriculum is more “free form” and there is no homework. Part of me likes the idea and the other, highly disciplined since childhood and very passionate about knowledge, screams “hold on a second!”

I Learned Because I Did a Lot of Work

I speak five languages because I used at least three of them each day while growing up: French in Geneva and Brussels, English and French at the schools I attended in each of those cities, and English and Italian at home. I repeated words because I used them. In class, I wrote page after page of vocabulary lists and verb conjugations. We recited those same verbs ad infinitum in class and then did again at home as we did exercises and in our books. Learn, repeat, recite, remind, re-learn, and repeat again. For years.

But maybe that only works with word and verbs. What about maths? What about biology and history and music and art? You can learn names and facts by heart but how do you explain the rise of Fascism in Europe without sounding like a machine just spouting dates and names? How do you explain the process of cell division so that people want to listen? That’s where the best teachers stand out.

We All Have Them—The Teachers Who Made An Impact

I had three teachers for my International Baccalaureate courses who really made an impact on me.

The first was my English teacher, Mrs. Cowie, who was considered tough but I always felt she pushed us to excel. A good grade from here was not easily won. I was always proud when I received one. Her praise was genuine but had to be earned through perseverance and applying yourself.

Mr. Goldthorpe taught history. I had always loved history but on the first day of class with him, I realized I could love it even more. He was always rather staid and quiet outside the classroom. He didn’t “hang out” with students or try to ingratiate himself with banter or excessive interest in your life outside of school. He loved his subject and he loved to teach. In class he would write down the daily points in a clear and concise way, we copied them then put our pens down and listen to him elaborate on what was on the board. It was mesmerizing. He was animated, and moving around, gesturing and playacting what he explained. He caught our attention no matter what we were learning about on a particular day. I did very well in that class.

The third teacher was Mrs. Simons. She was a petite Indian lady who was intelligent, funny and very personable. She was always also very animated and loved her job. She taught biology and made us stay after school and make us do work we had not covered when she realized our previous teacher had “been a little lazy”. Like Mrs. Cowie and Mr. Goldthorpe, Mrs. Simons was an excellent teacher but she didn’t just teach her subject, she taught us how to learn. I found out I loved biology because she made it make sense to me. It wasn’t an obscure subject only the abnormally intelligent could grasp.

I had learned how to learn.  Not everyone did.

Organization is Key

I noticed this deficiency in my friends at university when I went back to the U.S, after high school. Besides the fact that thanks to the I.B. we had learned what most of them were just starting to learn their first year, we had also learned how to be organized. Just as in Brussels, I became everyone’s favorite tutor and people were amazed at how knowledgeable I was. While I did seem to know more about certain subjects than most of my new friends, the one true advantage I had was my ability to take notes clearly, organize them in such a way that they still made sense to me once I had left the classroom, and I knew how to read and re-read a text in order to glean the important information I would need to grasp the subject.

Learning How To Learn

This was taught me to me just as my times tables, the vocabulary lists and the dates and names of important historical events had been. It was the most important thing I learned because without it studying and trying to retain all that information would have been an unbearable attempt to sift through illegible and illogical details. I don’t remember enjoying learning all these methods very much but I do remember being proud when I realized how much easier the work became as a result. I still use the methods to organize my daily life: children’s schedules, our business’ schedule and menus and timetables for prep and service in the restaurant and the truck, and hopefully carving out a half an hour a day of “Mommy time” to recharge my biological and intellectual batteries.

To This Day…

I still do “homework” on my own if I have time. I am working on a side-by-side book of verb conjugations in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish so that I don’t lose too much of any of those languages since the opportunities to speak any of them here are almost non-existent. I am also learning Farsi by myself. So far I can say hello, yes, no, please nice to meet you (formal and informal), welcome to our home and happy birthday. It will take a while.

For the Love of Learning

What I am most grateful for, and what I want to pass onto my boys, is that love of learning. I do not see my curiosity and desire to find out more and study new subjects as anything unusual or strange. My sister recently saw I was reading the book March 1917 by Will Englund. She smirked and said “Only you could read that for fun!”

I thought “No, I’m not. Thank goodness.”

All teachers and parents need to show their children that any subject is thrilling and can be mesmerizing and exciting. All learning doesn’t have to be practical. They shouldn’t feel they can learn just enough to earn a decent grade and then forget it. Knowledge is a treasure. The opportunity to study is precious and wonderful. Sharing knowledge with others is fascinating and eye-opening as nothing else can be. Your brain is a wondrous organ and it should not be wasted. Learn to love learning. The rest will follow.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Lars Plougmann.

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