As I smiled and said, “Great!” to my little girl, the voice inside my head responded with a resounding, “Ugh!!”
It is November, and that means it is Science Fair time for my 10-year-old daughter. She came bounding in with the list of requirements, do’s and don’ts. “Isn’t it exciting Daddy?!” she said as we read through the never ending list of requirements. That voice inside my head was running a sound track that was balancing the enthusiasm of my daughter with an ongoing diatribe of negativity. “This will take forever!” “Not again!” and, “Didn’t we almost blow up the back porch with that volcano last year?”
I smiled and told my daughter, “Great!” while fighting those voices that were going in quite the opposite direction. “What can we do Daddy?”
I must admit that in the years past we have had some Science Fair doozies. We have built a full scale catapult that launched a watermelon nearly 50 yards (the teacher didn’t believe that my then 10-year-old son did most of the work for some reason). We have built a hydroponic garden. We have done some cool things. But they were all a LOT of work.
“What can we do Daddy?” Again, that question. Are Daddies really supposed to have that answer readily on file for everything? Even Science Fair projects? Well, today Daddy didn’t have an answer, so Daddy gave the answer that all Daddies that don’t have an answer give – “Let’s go look on YouTube”.
I typed in “Science Project Ideas for 4th Graders”…
Abbie, my 10-year-old, and I ended up watching YouTube videos for nearly an hour. We laughed at some of the silly things people did. We ooh-ed and aahh-ed over some of the really cool things people did. We found this guy who calls himself the “Crazy Russian Scientist” and watched nearly 20 things that he did with dry ice. We had a blast. In fact, I think my enthusiasm for playing with dry ice or building a homemade lava lamp or maybe building a catapult that could launch a watermelon the length of a football field was surpassing even my daughter’s enthusiasm.
After my wife wisely said “NO” to the catapult (we are still working through issues that the last one created), my daughter and I decided on the homemade lava lamp. It is so cool with incandescent colors and it is powered by the chemical reactions of different liquids and their varying viscosities. In other words, Daddy is starting to have fun with the Science Fair idea. For almost a week my daughter comes in wanting to work on the Science Fair project and I have already beat her to it. It is set up and ready for work to commence. This lava lamp is going to be awesome and won’t my wife be surprised with her Christmas present this year!
As I watched my daughter jump out of the car and skip to the school building this morning I had to ask myself, “What changed?” Why was I excited about this science fair project when my initial reaction was a resounding “UGH!!?” I thought about this for a while. I always had fun with the kids when we build things together and we discover together. I love spending the time with them and goodness knows it is a better way to spend time than staring at the television each evening. As I pondered this, it really bothered me that my first reaction was negative. My first reaction was all about the aggravation of the time commitment and the dreading of another item on the schedule and the process of reading the rules and the seeming drudgery of one more thing to do.
But I know what changed.
It wasn’t my daughter. It wasn’t the rules of the science project. It wasn’t my attitude towards my kids. We spend our evenings together playing games and watching shows and reading. No, what changed was my attitude and my priorities. But what was so interesting is that these things changed because I rediscovered something inside myself. Watching those videos and seeing my daughter’s enthusiasm and then getting excited myself about creating and exploring changed my attitude from “one more thing” to “this could be really cool!” In other words, the excitement of learning and exploring and asking and trying reignited inside me.
I have heard many teachers say that they struggle with some students because the students just don’t care whether they learn or not. They don’t care whether then pass or not. In fact, “I don’t care” seems to be the mantra for many of our students. They walk the hall with their eyes pointed towards the floor. They don’t turn in their homework. They doodle instead of taking notes. They just don’t seem interested in learning. Do you know these kids?
Think about these kids. Now think about Kindergarten. Whether taking your own child or observing a class or just some random experience of seeing a group of kindergartners, think about these little 5- and 6-year-olds. These kids come into school scared and excited and worried and fearful and exhilarated and stressed. They start their first day of school with an anticipation that is only matched by the excitement of exploring this newfound responsibility and independence. They are excited about everything from their new lunchbox to their first recess. They light up like a candle when they read and write their first words. They think the songs they sing as a choir are the most compelling musical pieces ever written, and they prove it by singing those songs over and over and over to their parents. In other words, I have never seen a kindergartener show up on the first day of school and say, “I don’t care!” I have never heard of a kindergartener starting the countdown until he or she is old enough to drop out of school.
So when does it happen? When does that excitement turn to dread? When does that anticipation turn to malaise? When does learning become drudgery rather than a joy? We often ask the when question but I think the one we should be asking is the why question. Why does learning lose its luster?
If truth be told, learning never truly loses its luster.
However, measurement does. The reason kindergarteners do not say “I don’t care if I pass or fail” is because they have no experience doing either one. The reason they get so excited when they read their first word is because it is a discovery and an accomplishment. The reason that 7 years later they dread reading that book and writing a report is because it is now a measurement; and when you are measured and you constantly come up short it becomes much safer to say “I don’t care” than it is to care and continually fail.
Not caring is a defense mechanism, and when it is applied to school it has nothing to do with learning. It has everything to do with the purpose of learning. If the sole purpose of learning is measurement, there will be lots of kids who end up in the “I don’t care” space, because they aren’t going to measure up. If the purpose of the learning is to spark curiosity and explore new and exciting things and encourage the question rather than calling for complete silence, then you will probably be bringing most of the students along for this journey.
I am a huge believer in accountability, and grades are essential for education. But teaching to a test and preparing for a grade is not the same as teaching to learn and teaching to question and loving the process of questioning and exploring and discovering.
I have heard many teachers say they have reached the point of not caring themselves. When I ask them why what I usually hear is that their students just don’t care and it has drained their enthusiasm. It has squelched that desire to teach. It has turned teaching into a routine rather than a journey. It has made them tired.
When I ask them why they became a teacher to begin with I hear very similar answers. Those answers never revolve around having the summers off or having a steady job or any of the other reasons those outside of education think teachers choose to teach. What I hear is, “I love to teach” and “I love to see a kid get it for the first time” and “It is all I have ever wanted to do”.
I fear that between testing and standards and core competencies and all the other mechanisms we use to measure proficiency, we may have deterred the most important. In order for learning to thrive there must be enthusiasm. In order for enthusiasm to exist there must be ideas. Ideas need questions in order to foment into hypotheses. Questions need questioners who are thinking critically and are given the ability to question. Then those questions need guidance and structure so that answers can be found through exploration and discovery. In other words, learning needs to be our daily science project. Learning needs excited learners and enthusiastic teachers. Neither of those can be accomplished when learning is unevenly yoked to measuring.
Why did I get so enthusiastic about those YouTube videos and my daughter’s 4th grade science fair? Because I saw things I did not know before and I wanted to try them. I heard things I had not heard before and I wanted to test them. I wanted to explore and question and discover. More importantly, I wanted my daughter to explore and question and discover. And isn’t that what our classrooms are supposed to be about? Why do we learn to read? Because when we can read it opens our world up far beyond our physical boundaries. Why do we learn to write? Because when we can write we can communicate in ways that speaking will never afford. Why do we learn mathematics? Because everyday life is built on the equations of survival and opportunities to thrive.
Why do we lose our enthusiasm for these subjects? Because somewhere along the way we forget about the journey.
We forget to explore and ask questions and discover. Somewhere along the way, the process overtakes the purpose and it becomes an assignment rather than an enthusiasm. Watching my daughter’s eyes light up as we built that silly little lava lamp gave me the happiest moments I have had in a while. Watching her explore and learn sparked my enthusiasm for helping her. I can only imagine what it would do for the classroom teacher if they had the opportunity to help their kids explore and question and discover, not just teach them to simply remember. Learning isn’t simply recalling; learning is knowing what to do with it. And more often than not, the best thing to do with recalled knowledge is to question it and begin the journey of discovery all over again.