Learning Is Something You Choose

Learning is something you choose. This isn’t news. Just look at your own life and observe your own interests, hobbies, and passions. Does anyone make you do them? Could anyone force you to bend over your woodworking for hours on end, or your art piece, or to read your spy novel late into the night? No one could make you devote that kind of energy and focus, and no one has to.

Yet we feel like we need to shove learning down our students throats or they won’t learn anything. We fear they will waste their time, spend it on unimportant things, get into trouble. Of course, as any teacher can tell you and as we all remember from our own time as students, shoving learning does not prevent those outcomes. Everyone “wastes” some of their time, everyone spends some of their time on “unimportant” things, and many of us get into some kind of trouble somewhere- despite the best efforts of legions of caring educators and parents trying to prevent us.

I’m using all those obnoxious quotes around “wastes” and “important” to draw attention to those definitions, and to question who is defining them. Is your antique train set “important?” Your painting? The novel you’re working on? Your relationships? The calculus homework you wept over in 11th grade and now can’t remember at all?

We spend vast amounts of energy trying to make sure students are learning the things we adults have deemed important, and sometimes they do learn, and sometimes they don’t. There are a lot of variables, but the chief difference is not in the amount of energy expended by the adults, but in the choice made by the student.

I’m not the first person to note this, of course. In the current conversation on education, we hear from Seth Godin:

“Learning is not done to you, it is something you choose to do.”

and Sir Ken Robinson:

“I don’t think there’s a kid in America, or anywhere in the world, who gets out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise their state’s reading standards. They get out of bed, if they’re motivated, by their own interests and their own development.”

and John Holt:

“Teaching does not make learning — organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to 100% false. Learners make learning.”

These are the voices in recent moments, but we can follow this thread all the way back to Socrates:

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

And yet, here we are, still trying to fill vessels in nearly every school in this country.

Other options do exist, and there’s a movement underway, including new Liberated Learners programs across North America, creating supportive and inspiring sets of circumstances in which learners have space to choose, and are given support, rather than coercion, to follow through. Learning is something you choose.

This post was originally published at LightHouse Holyoke: lighthouseteens.org

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