How to Safeguard the Love of Learning
Last winter I read The Enchanted Places – A Memoir of the Real Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. One of Christopher Milne’s cherished memories is of his father, A. A. Milne, reading aloud at bedtime. Sometimes a story was made-up on the spot, about a little boy and his toys.
Christopher Milne tells of his father attending a dinner party. Around the table sat preparatory schoolmasters who gave speeches. They all agreed that the biggest burden of their job was parental interference. Normally A. A. Milne was quiet but he couldn’t resist a speech of his own. His own boy would often choose to hear the ideas of Euclid for a bedtime story over Treasure Island. He used this as an example (rather rashly) stating that all children have a keen interest in many things. Young children are eager to learn, he told them. “And then we send them to your schools, and in two years, three years, four years, you have killed all their enthusiasm. At fifteen their only eagerness is to escape learning anything. No wonder you don’t want to meet us.” *1
In the 19th century Miss Charlotte Mason observed the lack of enthusiasm in the students of Great Britain and strove to remedy it. She developed a new method of educating children. Up until the age of 50, and with a weak heart, she took the train and traveled a circuit. She spread the news of the PNEU and the success of the method far and wide.
Oh, if only we could have such a revival in America’s schools today.
How is curiosity schooled out of children? We undervalue them and then depend upon an array of artificial inducements says Miss Mason.
“B. F. Skinner could be described as a man who did most of his experiments on rats and pigeons and wrote most of his books about people.” Alfie Kohn *2
A hand is raised in the classroom. “Is this going to be on the test?” School teachers accustomed to this, hardly bat an eye. They don’t recognize it for what it is – a distress call. The student has surrendered to a broken system of education that squelches curiosity. Long before B.F. Sinner’s behavior experiments (do this and you’ll get that) entered psychology, Miss Mason was sharing her findings that “[grades], prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect [without them]. *3
According to Miss Mason a system of education that relies on bribes, continual testing, grades and other over-controlling measures to get children to do their schoolwork, is trusting in the wrong things. To cope, a child learns how to work for the grade. Well-meaning adults, once conditioned by the system – will even coach the child on how to cram. This strategy works in the short run. But in the long run, what does the student know? Does he care to know? Gray clouds gather on the horizon. The eyes of a child can be so fixed on the grade that his very identity becomes wrapped up in it.
Competitive group games are used with the rote memorization of names, dates and assorted facts. It occurs to those in charge that since this is working and the children like it; let’s add more facts – for greater “academic achievement.” But it is the fun, the friends, and the winning of prizes that these children care about.
“Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” Alfie Kohn *4
In Alfie Kohn’s big book, Punished by Rewards – The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, he has unsettling things to say. He references hundreds of studies. The studies show that people (preschoolers up to adults) will work for rewards but will avoid anything challenging. They avoid risk-taking too, because they are afraid of making mistakes. He says that when you are promised a reward you come to see the task as something that comes between you and it. The fastest and easiest way is chosen to get at the prize. *5
|Amish one-room schoolhouse - photograph taken by Dean yesterday|
To entice children to read, sometimes money, ice cream or a pizza-party is given for reading a book. I wanted to do things differently. When my children were learning to read I kept our stack of easy-readers boxed and closeted in order to reveal them at intervals. When the children had finished one reader in the series, along with its accompanying phonic exercises and sight word practice, they went on a treasure hunt. Their next reader was hidden somewhere in the house. This tiny bit of anticipation and mystery was exhilarating. The reward for finishing the last book was a natural consequence, the joy of finding another.
When older students are bribed to read thus-and-thus many books, given a choice, shorter and less challenging books are picked to obtain the reward. Although my recollection is hazy I came across an anecdote some years back, in an introduction to one of C. S. Lewis’s books. This week I searched our shelves but couldn’t find it. Anyway, I remember that when C. S. Lewis was in a hospital a nurse recognized his name.
“I read your book,” she said brightly.
“I read your book,” she said brightly.
“Oh? Which one?”
“The Screwtape Letters,” she said.
“How did you come by it?”
She confessed, “In school we had to a pick books off a list and that was the shortest.”
Miss Mason put her trust in a child’s ability to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge. She avoided anything that would encourage children to become preoccupied with what they will get for what they are doing. What motivators did Charlotte Mason use? My back posts labeled “A Charlotte Mason Education” point to them. In this article I revisit some of these to tie them together for new purpose.
Children are born with God-given curiosity. If protected, a desire to know will stay alive and be engaged through high school.
The Holy Spirit is the Supreme Educator. He applies learning to the mind and heart. Learning isn’t entirely accomplished by a teacher’s burdensome effort. She sets up an atmosphere, the conditions that make learning possible. She supplies ideas - varied and worthwhile - to think about. Her students receive a wide curriculum under three headings: Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Man, and Knowledge of the Universe.
There is no substitution for self-education. In place of a lecture Miss Mason’s student's derived knowledge from books. She put them directly in touch with the carefully chosen words of an author – one enthralled with his subject. She tells us that a schoolteacher in his “desire to be serviceable . . . believes that children cannot understand well-written books and that he must make himself a bridge between the pupil and the real teacher, the man who has written the book.”*6 What was her honest appraisal of the schoolbooks and lectures of her day? They were a bore. A dull education suppresses initiative. Charlotte Mason wanted students minds to be engaged.
(Some textbooks available today are written more lively.)
An Active Mind
A young child, eager to learn, has questions. In the classroom he is expected to sit still and be silent – for long stretches of time. A young mother once shared with me one reason she decided to home educate. As is frequently the case with a firstborn child, hers was a chatterbox and always asking questions. This lively little girl was riveted at read aloud times, loved her pets, and spent hours exploring by (and in) the creek in the back yard. After spending a year in a typical first-grade classroom she was less lively, had far less to say. And she stopped asking questions. Why should she? The teacher did that for her.
With Miss Mason’s method, a student’s mind is open and his mouth is open. His reaction and opinion are welcome. By putting the reading in his own words (oral or written) he is going over the ideas by which he is impressed. He may draw a picture of what is forming in his imagination. The mind puts questions to itself in order to compose. (What’s next? What else?) As one thought leads to another the child develops a train of thought. His mind is more active with narration in a more natural way than when memorizing lists or recalling fragments? Multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, match-the-columns, or a long questionnaire – for ease of grading - are replaced with “What do you think?”
Educators are pressured to prove in black & white that students are “getting it.” Frequent testing is also supposed to keep students on their toes. An infestation of tests may hang heavy in the air. But when we trust in Charlotte Mason’s principles a fresh wind of change revives us. To safeguard enthusiasm and create a refreshing atmosphere:
give children something interesting to think about,
let the authors teach,
require children to think, show and tell - all the way through high school,
expect their obedience to your big choices; give them small choices,
inspire them to share and serve others with what they know as they grow.
Studies Serve for Delight
“Studies serve for delight” occurred to Miss Mason in the 19th century as being the better way to educate persons. There are higher aims by which persons live and learn. Opening up our 1965 copy of the Boy Scout Handbook puts a few at my fingertips.
About twenty years ago I read in Miss Mason’s Parents’ Reivew, something that attached itself to my memory. It was the bold concluding line of an article (an article I’ve lost track of) – a quotation by the ancient Greek teacher, Plato. “Punishments and rewards are the worst form of education.”
In life we act with mixed motivations. This is the plain reality of it. We are willingly devoted to our family day and night. We are commanded to love. This shows people God is real. But we also love because we, too, long to be loved. As I see it we need not apologize for this.
Above all – Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)
Discussion is invited,
1 Christopher Milne, The Enchanting Places, page 119
2 Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards, pg 6
3 Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education pg 7
4 Punished by Rewards, pg 67
5 Ibid, pg 65
6 Phil of Ed, pg 260
You may read more on self-education in A Charlotte Mason Companion.
A biography with little suspense, conflict or emotion will still hold my attention. I like to learn about people. The Enchanted Places was interesting. Putting my finger on what had left me feeling down, I found the account to be missing the kinds of things that a Christian reader finds satisfying – that is - looking at life as having spiritual reality, with virtue sought after – in the small details of domestic life or otherwise.
At the end of the book Christopher Robin Milne reaches a decision. He was serving in WWII when he sent his father a letter stating that there is no Christian God - a statement his father was relieved to hear.
Our family thinks the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are delightful, cute, clever and humorous. Disguised in fake fur the characters bring human nature to light. But pity joins my admiration for the author now.