How Do Kids Want To Learn? My Doctoral Research Pt. 1

I want to share with you the findings of my doctoral research published in 2003.  I studied a program created by my mentor, J.P. Das of University of Alberta.  This program, called PREP, helps train cognitive (thinking) processes.  I wanted to know not only the effects on learning, but “What was the learner’s experience” of the program.  How did they feel and think about what they were doing in our treatment sessions?  What I found surprised me.

Kathy was pregnant. I have to tell you that so she doesn't kill me.

First, let’s talk a bit about school.  I’m not here to school bash.  We have politicized education so badly that it is difficult to say anything about it without raising defenses.  There are a lot of stakeholders including parents, publishing companies, school staff, politicians, etc.  The most important stakeholder is the child.  If this is true, then we should always re-evaluate and re-examine our practices.  We should listen to one another.  That approach may lead to progress.

I know that school shaped me.  No doubt about it.  How could it not?  The things I loved about school were the social things. Friendships and sports were great.  I had some teachers I will never forget.  Three of them, in fact.  For some reason, though, I just can’t forget how boring it was.  The two major negative forces I met were 1) Boredom and 2) Humiliation. Let’s take them one at a time.

Boredom: When adults schedule a speaker they look for informative and entertaining people.  This seems true for all the adult groups I know of, e.g., business presentations, PTA/PTO, etc.  It only makes sense.  A knowledgeable bore  doesn’t get a lot of invitations to return.  Having suffered many a boring class, it has always been common sense, in my opinion, that we shouldn’t ask children to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  In fact, children have even more difficulty than adults withstanding boredom (they are developing attention), so developmentally appropriate practices hold us to an even higher standard for stimulation.  Also, adults have many more years in the world.  They have a better frame of reference than do children.  For example, I can connect with a history lesson on Ronald Reagan because I lived during his presidency.  A child brings little relevant experience to the lesson.

I just got a reminder of how boring my 11 year old child finds school.  Tonight was Griffin’s open house.  The students wrote letters to their parents and taped them on their desks.  Clearly, the theme of Griffin’s letter was boredom.  He went down the list: Math is O.K., Social Studies is really boring.  Media Studies is the worst.  How can that be?  Social Studies?  Are children not curious about the world around them?  Media Studies?  Please.  My kid has his nose in media all day long.  He is absolutely curious about media.  He isn’t buying what they are selling at school.  I’m disappointed.  I want him to love these subjects.

Here is a thought.  What if we allow kids to work on real projects?  (Notice I said, “allow”.  The adult is still guiding the experience).  By “project”, I don’t mean doing a collage or writing a research paper on an unselected topic. I mean let learners solve “real” problems  and have “real” debates.  And by real,  I mean problems that matter to kids.  Let’s make the  content, at least initially, relevant to the child. In Griffin’s case, we could start with examining the media that are relevant to kids.  Couldn’t we consider the iPod Touch to look at the history of technology, social meaning, psychology (effects of the technology), applications, etc.?  Author Marjie Knudsen ( sent me this today:  Take a look at it.

Did you check it out?  Children built those devices!  But what did they learn?  Think it through.  Ask yoursef, “What did it take for them to go from concept to delivery?  What did the child do creatively?  What problems did the learner solve?  What prior knowledge, e.g., mathematics, literacy skills, etc., did the learner apply?  In order to even begin walking this new path, we would have to look at the fundamental attitudes we have about children.

Recently, Thomas Friedman wrote a piece stating that the problem lies in parents and that we should demand more out of our children.  I have a lot to say about this, but I’m running over my limit.  For now, I’ll say that I couldn’t disagree more.  I wouldn’t even know how to approach it.  Do I demand that he not be bored?  Do I demand that he fake curiosity about the content?  Would adults respond to this as a management style?  For example, how would you like to find out that your heart surgeon was completely uninterested in his studies and is practicing medicine because his superiors demanded he do it?  Do we really want that?  What is the underlying attitude here?

Here is the worst of it.  Children who do not respond to lecture/textbook education sometimes feel that they are not smart.  What a shame.  School isn’t too hard for them.  They could learn the material.  It is just boring.  Now the learner can’t get better because he/she feels disenfranchised.

Humiliation and Fear of Humiliation

Imagine that you were a poor reader.  Now imagine that you are waiting your turn to read aloud.  I remember this happening and I even remember the words that this poor girl missed.  I was in 3rd or 4th grade.  It was science.  The words were “digest” and “saliva”.  She said “dig-its” and “slava”.  We roared with laughter.   She laughed along nervously.  Students joked about it after school.  If I remember it, I wonder if she remembers it.

People tend to behave according to our expectations.  If we give kids the message that they are threats or potential problems, they are more likely to behave in a problematic way.  I behaved best for the teachers who showed me respect.  I wonder how much of the bad behavior we hear about in school is a defense against humiliation.  Getting yelled at is humiliating.  Being corrected for mistakes publicly is humiliating.   Posted grades are humiliating  for the low scorers.  Being bullied by peers is humiliating.  Being rejected by peers is humiliating. The year I published my dissertation, the Dallas Morning News published this:

In Part 2 of this post, I will share the findings from the research.  The children in this study were my co-researchers.  They tell us how they want to learn and how we can get there. Hint:  boredom or humiliation have nothing to do with it.  See you next time.

Published by drmartinfletcher

Martin Fletcher, Psy.D, L.P. Dr. Martin Fletcher is the Shrink of The Shepherd and the Shrink Podcast. He is in private practice at Renew Hope Counseling where he also supervises a team of talented clinicians. In late 2019 Dr. Marty teamed up w/ Dr. Matt Hook to respond to the growing mental health crisis. The goal is to help people create healthy spiritual lives in order to restore meaning and purpose to individuals, families, and communities. Psychology meets spirituality. Dr. Fletcher holds advanced degrees in clinical psychology and education. His treatment approach involves quickly reducing symptoms while helping patients design and maintain health promoting lifestyles. Dr. Fletcher is a husband to Kathy and dad to 3 sons and one daughter. His interests include fitness, guitar, motorcycles, mountain biking, and exploring the role of spirituality in health. Dr. Fletcher is fully licensed in the State of Michigan.

8 thoughts on “How Do Kids Want To Learn? My Doctoral Research Pt. 1

  1. Now I’m blushing! Thank you so much for such kind words and feedback. I’m so glad to have found your amazing blog (I have Rick Ackerly to thank for that). It’s always refreshing to find like-minded people, especially when they twist and turn the ideas around in a way you may not have thought about them before.

  2. You’re spot on here. If more schools implemented project-based learning, where students felt comfortable not only making mistakes, but solving problems together as a team, then much of the boredom and humiliation would be replaced with enthusiasm and motivation. Imagine that.

    Did you see this recent Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis? Here’s the link:

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and research.

    1. Dawn, thanks so much for that article. I remember J.P. Das telling me that he preferred getting students as early as possible before they are “ruined”. In other words, the more education they got, the more rigid the thinking (according to J.P.).

      Some of the smartest people I know taught themselves. I know the V.P. of Technology at a major corporation. He got an econ degree and taught himself programming because he loves problem solving.

  3. I would have never have thought of humiliation in the classroom as a hindrance to learning- but you are 100% correct. I remember how an embarrassing interaction with a classmate, or especially a teacher, could spoil my entire day! I would hone in on my feelings of embarrassment, unable to absorb any information or material for that day.

    Working with kids in schools, I have sadly witnesses firsthand how some (but not all) teachers can bully their students. These teachers reason that the “bad” kid who talks too much in class or acts out of turn, needs to be checked for their behavior and brought back to reality. But what these teachers forget is that these kids aren’t on the same level as adults emotionally or mentally; and therefore cannot be treated as though they have the same maturity level. Young children do not understand reality or see the world as adults do, so humiliation to a child is far more damaging and destructive.

    1. And now teachers are being bullied into reading scripts and teaching the way the government tells them to teach. What doesn’t work for adults will not work for kids.

      Also, I bet you got upset when any of your classmates were in trouble. I did. It is disturbing.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: