Pay attention to joys learning brings

Updated: 2012-03-19 08:11

By Berlin Fang (China Daily)

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Pay attention to joys learning brings

One of my colleagues once came back from his classroom asking: "Did you hear a loud explosion in the classroom?" Seeing the shock on my face, he chuckled: "It's the students' minds being blown away!"

Irish poet William Butler Yeats said "education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire" and for a teacher it ought to be deeply satisfying to set students' minds ablaze.

But becoming such an educational arsonist requires one to care about one's students, and to have a deep understanding of human psychology to help students learn with focus, purpose, confidence, and satisfaction.

I became interested in student motivation as I noticed an increasing number of Chinese children were dropping out of weekend Chinese schools. As untrained volunteers, many teachers are actually parents who teach the way they were taught while growing up in China, but the conditions for learning have changed for children. As a result, students can be frustrated or bored to tears with classes.

When kids say they would rather wash dishes than go to a Chinese school, something is very wrong in the ways they learn. How are they going to love their roots in Chinese and China if all their memory is associated with pain?

A visiting Chinese teacher Zhang Yajun said something that really struck a cord with me: "In Chinese, we have so many expressions about 'hard' learning", emphasizing that learning is necessarily difficult, without paying equal attention to the joys learning brings."

We say things like "hard work is the path in the mountain of books, arduous work is the boat in the sea of learning". But learning should be a joy not a chore. We need to find ways to turn it into a voyage of discovery as described in the poem Ithaca by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy who said, "pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge".

Elements like purpose, effort, and play should be artfully orchestrated to produce the conditions for learning. In his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robionson stresses the importance of finding our intrinsic motivation to inspire us to achieve at the highest level.

There is nothing wrong with hard work itself. Most cultures stress hard work. Time on task is often one of the key contributors towards success at learning. Let's not forget, however, that those who are effective learners have increased time doing what they enjoy or what they perceive to be meaningful, useful or at the very least necessary.

When there is a personal interest in learning the subject matter or students find it meaningful, they don't find studying bitter and hard. For instance, students may be lukewarm towards teacher-assigned online discussions, but see what happens on their Facebook pages. What's the difference there? Students simply believe their Facebook sites are places they "own".

Chinese parents often find it legitimate to force their children to endure the hardships of learning without explaining to them why they are learning what they learn - "you will understand it when you grow up," they say.

But if you cannot articulate the purpose of learning something to your child, maybe you do not know the purpose yourself. Your child may spend years studying piano and pass test after test, only to throw away all the books and never touch the piano again when they "grow up".

You might talk about delayed satisfaction, but I see it as destroyed motivation, often happening in slow motion over many years.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

(China Daily 03/19/2012 page8)