Monday, November 21, 2011

Why We Learn

My 3rd grade daughter was working on her homework tonight. I have to admit that before this year we have not been good about making sure her homework got done. This year we're trying to be better about assisting with this.

She did not get her word study homework done last week (her teacher requires three word study assignments each week from a list of many options). She was working on this tonight while I did dishes. She was illustrating her words and was stuck on one. She asked me for help and I had trouble understanding the word. I told her to spell it for me. She looked down at her paper and I said, "No, YOU spell it for me." She said, "But I already took this test!"

I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. How is it that in third grade she is learning something solely for the test? What happened to the joy in learning for the sake of learning? I know she still does plenty of that, at least outside of school. Is it simply (as my husband suggested) that she doesn't understand why learning these words might be important or useful?

Once I finished the dishes we got started on her fractions homework. She had to take mixed numbers and make them improper fractions. For the first few we drew a picture and she could figure it out. That became a bit cumbersome by about the third mixed number because the numbers got too big. She wanted to just use the strategy she learned at school: multiply the whole number by the denominator and add the numerator. I wanted her to be able to figure these out because she understood what she was doing, not because she had memorized an algorithm.

I pushed on this and, I think, by the end she did understand what she was doing and, therefore, how to do it. But, again, I was astounded by how little interest she had in understanding what she was doing. She was working these out to jump through the hoop of homework. She wants to please her teacher, who is an amazingly wonderful, fabulous teacher. That's not a bad thing but I want her to want to understand.

We'll keep doing all the things we do outside of school to learn and grow but I want those things to work hand in hand with school. In previous years I felt like that was happening.

When I taught fourth graders I was often pained to hear the question, "Is this for a grade?" When I moved from the upper grades down to first grade I was thrilled to never hear that question. First graders love learning and doing new things. I wondered where it was that we managed to beat that out of kids. For my daughter at least it appears to be by third grade.

I don't blame her teachers. She has had fantastic teachers. I think this is a much bigger societal issue and goes far beyond our school. The conversations with my daughter tonight simply pushed me down this path.


Anonymous said...

It's hard to muster a desire to learn for learning sake in kids who may or may not cherish the opportunity to learn. Sometimes having an end goal (test, getting a good job, making $) has to be the end. I certainly hate it, but it's hard to make a horse drink.

Miss Angel said...

I am studying to be a teacher, and we are taught to use a problem-solving approach for at least half of our lessons, so that kids really have to understand what they're doing and why. But when I do observations and field work, I notice that kids are more often taught to just follow an algorithm to solve the problem, without really "getting" the concept. Thats how I learned, and as a result I am terrible at math!

Angela Watson said...

Just a few weeks ago, I read a blog post by parent wondering about the exact same things with her 4th grade daughter--the fractions and everything! Here's my take on it:

Jenny said...

Jason, I think that may be true later, but it's hard for me to imagine as eight. Plus, I really do think many kids in elementary school still do a lot of learning for the sake of learning outside of school. I do think it's a lot harder to make some school learning really relevant, but not impossible. I just can't give up on that.

Angel, I have learned so much more about math since I began teaching it than I ever did in school (and I did fairly well in math). The more I read about math and how we learn it the more pained I am by how it is typically taught.

Angela,I remember reading that and completely agreeing with what you had to say. I don't actually question what my daughter is learning and I don't question what her teacher is doing. I'm just pained by the immediate leap to an algorithm. I want to know that she understands what she's doing in math and knowing the algorithm doesn't guarantee that.

Grace said...

I am a preservice teacher who is constantly thinking and learning about this issue. How do we keep kids engaged and actively involved in what they are learning and not just focused on the grade or test? In all of my methods courses we are constantly thinking about how, we as new teachers, can teach in a way that fosters the love for and excitement of learning. I see that there is definitely no easy answer, but something I will always be working on.