3/29/12

Learning How to Learn

My mom told me once when I was flopping from one college trajectory to another that “It doesn’t matter so much what you major in, you are there to learn how to learn.” At the time It was helpful, but for years I wondered why after twelve years of public school do I need to go to college to learn how to learn?

After being an A student my whole life, breezing through school, and wondering when they were going to stop the review lessons, I turned out to be sadly ill prepared for the college math and science classes I dove into. Problem number one was, how do I choose a major when I don’t know what I want to do. Problem number two was, I had no idea how to help myself. It was a completely new experience to “learn” something I didn’t already know. I coasted through twelve years of public education having rarely if ever raised my hand to ask a question, and now I was in a class where the professor couldn’t even see my hand, and I had no idea what to ask anyway. This straight A student flunked out in a year, scary. . . then I changed paths and kept on chugging.


Now, years later with my own kids , I am amazed by how quickly they learn new things and how creative their little minds are. At the same time I am disappointed at how little the apparent purpose of elementary school has changed (at least from my vantage point as parent in this particular school system). I wonder why more teachers here don’t know how to see that every child has a strength or gift. Wouldn’t it be great if every teacher felt it is important to let the children (and parents if necessary) know “Right now you shine at__________.” And to do it in a way that says, “This is not all you can do, it is just a start, there is so much more ahead for you! Keep looking. Keep trying.”

I was mortified when my oldest began school. By kindergarten my curious, always happy, creative, literacy ready, sweet and supersmart self starting learner age five hated school. Loved spinach, broccoli and carrots, but hated school. Unlike my shy, quiet, keep to myself and do what I am told style of coping with not learning much of anything, (fairly common to girls by the way) my kiddo was active and noisy. If he was bored or unengaged the teachers knew it. I think that is because he not only loves to learn, he craves it. Idle time is not his friend (um. . .anyone been in an elementary classroom lately? Hurry up and wait.) He devours ideas and information like a wolf devours rabbits and chickens, and like the wolf, he needs to move. One perceptive teacher noticed when given an open ended math problem, he created his own more difficult problem to solve, to keep himself occupied.  The previous teacher saw this as off task, (I wonder if her own lack of mathematical understanding prevented her from seeing what he was doing?) He also needs stability and predictability. He has difficulty following verbal instructions with a number of steps,

Because first he has to stop his own thoughts, like stopping a locomotive engine headed down hill with a long train of cars pushing from behind, to realize there is something he should be listening to, then hear what is actually said and realize, “Oh I am supposed to be doing something.” Tune in catch the last few instructions, look around, see everyone else is getting started on something, but What? And then, “oh no, everyone else knows what to do, why don’t I? I must be really stupid. . .” Then a little panic sets in like when you are waiting in a large crowd of students and realize you missed your bus home in all the chaos of the squished up lines of children and now you are stuck here in this place! The whole fight or flight crash of emotions on his nervous system, at which point he is sent to the principal’s office and told he is defiant and asked why he is choosing to misbehave. No one notices that there was anything wrong, any reason for him to be upset, “He just exploded.” Is what they say.


Same kid can read directions to just about anything and know just what to do. In his then 8 year old wisdom one day, he told me, “The biggest problem with teachers is they don’t tell you exactly what they want.”

The way I see it though, his learning style isn’t that unlike many other children’s in many ways. Though most kids aren’t so lucky as to have all these issues at once I will bet each and every one of you knows someone with one or two at least. I also bet that more than one of you have creative children (they’re born that way you know) and children who possess the coveted skills and attributes of a perfect student: curiosity, inner drive and motivation to learn, goal oriented persistence, and self confidence. The question is how long can they hold onto those things once they get to school? And can we create schools and homes that understand how to nurture those attributes?

Now I know some friends who suggested to me “perhaps this school just isn’t a good fit” Not all schools work for all kids. I understood and took no offense. . ..till the secretary of the school told me I ought to homeschool –that I did take offense to. Ya see here’s the thing, my child started out just the way all of yours did, with all this drive to learn, and then poof, because some people don’t understand how to teach him or even understand that they don’t know how to teach him, (scary.) we have to find a new school, public school because no way can you afford to send him to a private school (which I never used to understand the need for by the way.) We have to find him a new school, and explain to him “Well son, good news it’s not the color of the skin they don’t like, it’s what’s inside you.” (um. . .no, never actually said that, but man what do we say, really? What would you say?)


I am worried. I am very worried, but not about the kids like my son, with parents like me who are advocating for them. Though they are all going through a kind of hell, I know their parents will support them no matter what. I am worried about the kids like my son who have no advocate, the kids like my second son who seem much less resilient, and the kids like me who are sliding through quietly not learning a thing unprepared for the 21st century and all it’s glories and guffaws.

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