Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Transitioning from Love of Learning to Academic Excellence

Imagine a person who marvels at the world, who oozes curiosity, who wakes each morning with a passion to learn what the world has to teach. She explores all that she touches and views the landscape with wide eyes. 

A child, obviously. That's certainly the first image that comes to thought. But what if that person is an adult?

Is that possible in today's world, with its standardized tests, its demand for a 4.0 GPA, its intolerance of independent thought in school, and its dogmatic assurance of what's necessary to succeed? 

Is there any way to maintain natural curiosity while still succeeding in today's world, and specifically in today's educational system?

One of the greatest gifts I can give my kids is the love of learning. I worry less about what they learn ... I want them to learn how to learn. If I can give them the ability to learn, they can learn anything.

So let's say that from early childhood I foster that love of learning (I'd call it "LOL" for short, but you might all end up laughing uncontrollably). They go through life merrily skipping along the lane, picking up bugs and turning over rocks, wading through ponds and finger painting (not at the same time), asking deep questions and being satisfied with open-ended answers, moving from experience to experience with wonderment, joy, and satisfaction. They grow, listening to the birds chirping (picture Snow White). They learn.

But I turn around one day and noticed that my kids are not only growing, they're growing fast. Suddenly, we seem to be running out of time. We look down at our watches, and three years have passed. G leaves for college in six years. How do we accomplish everything we need to in just six short years?

I panic and jump into "academic excellence" mode. Gone is the learning for learning's sake. Gone is the plan to learn how to learn and the focus is on what to learn. Gone is the leisurely time for walking and listening to the heartbeat of the trees. What's taken its place is the push to learn THIS, learn THAT. "You'll need this to learn that."

Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Back up. Is this what I want my kids to get out of their education? Decidedly not. So I take a breath and stop in my tracks. 

Let's look at this transition from love of learning to academic excellence. Do they need to be mutually exclusive? Do they need to be independent methods of education? Can you have academic excellence without a love of learning, and if you love to learn, is it possible not to develop at least some excellence in some academic field?

Clearly, we need to bow at the altar of the admissions gods if we want our kids to go to the colleges they choose. That means abiding by their demands for sacrifices and offering up the required bounty. But I maintain that we can honor their wishes without following the path of the traditional quest for academic excellence.

Our society is conditioned to believe that we must follow certain paths to reach specific destinations. If the destination is college, there's a typical well-traveled path that leads straight from high school to the doors of the university. We all know the road: standardized tests, AP classes, 4.0 GPA (anything less than an A is unworthy), extracurricular activities (which our kids happily fit in the wasted time between homework and waking), letters of recommendations from noteworthy professors (after all, your kid is interning in a genetics lab in his spare time, right?), volunteering (how would the sheets at the orphanage get washed without your kid's help?), and the bubbly, articulate, perfectly polished interview (Katie Couric, take notes).

In short, academic excellence. 

But that scenario--which is a pretty well-established, expected routine for college-bound students these days--is pretty unforgiving and often the antithesis of maintaining the love of learning.

My belief, which I've seen confirmed by more than a few real-life students' lives, is that the love of learning transitions beautifully to academic excellence, if given a chance. As children gain more and more knowledge about things that they're fascinated with, their curiosity naturally prompts them to widen their knowledge base, to seek out new information, to boldly go where no student has gone before. A kid who has been given free rein on learning what she wants to delve into can develop a vast mental network, with nodes connecting to all sorts of fields.

Take the elementary schooler who loves thunderstorms. Left to her own devices (and without having to bend will of the science teacher), that kid will quickly exhaust all the books written for children on the topic of thunderstorms. Naturally, she'll branch out, looking into other resources (videos, websites, etc.) for more information on thunderstorms, moving up to books for older readers, or researching related topics (tornados or hurricanes). The central node of her network has put out feelers and connected slightly different topics and somewhat more advanced discussions.

By the time that student gets to middle school, she may have developed a strong foundation for science, in addition to other tangential fields that related to her original interest. Perhaps her interest has morphed into other areas that were originally only marginally related to thunderstorms, say safety engineering, disaster relief, or civil engineering after reading about mass evacuations before hurricanes.

And by high school? She'll probably have a rock-solid science foundation, which will have to be supplemented only enough to fill the small holes. To round out her education, she may have to take some classes that wouldn't be her first choice, but if she's continued that love of learning throughout her life so far, she'll value the experience, even if she's not thrilled with the subject matter. And she'll recognize that those classes are necessary for her to reach her ultimate goal.

This is my perfect vision. We haven't gotten there yet, so we'll see how it plays out. I expect that my worries will get the best of me at some point and I'll cave in to the pressure of the "what you need to know" argument. I'll hold off as long as I can, and I hope my children's love of learning will prove that my worries were unfounded.


  1. Wonderful post, Camille. I grapple with this issue all the time, and am always aiming for the right balance between guiding their learning and letting them take the reins. Letting children maintain their love of learning is one reason many of us choose to homeschool, I think.

  2. Oh, Camille, I want to be you when I grow up (that's so not an age joke, LOL). So well said. I am glad to hear that I am not the only one who vacillates like this. I 100% agree with your 5th paragraph and have consistently reiterated to DH that I could care less, as a homeschooler, whether they know X,Y, and Z random school-y facts - I just want them to know how to *think*. And to love it.

  3. Just call me Vacillating Violet. One day I'm up, the next I'm down. My poor kids never know where to find me. I expect I'll have it all figured out by the time the last one is off to college. :)

  4. Beautiful! Once you have figured it out, can you please post? That means you would have figured it out before *mine* go to college, so there is hope for me :-)