How Do Kids Want To Learn? My Doctoral Research Pt. 2

Part one of this story focused on boredom and humiliation/fear of humiliation as obstacles to learning.   My experience of boredom and fear of humiliation in my K-12 education was a driver for me to start looking closely at learning.  Here, I present the findings from my doctoral research.  As a student, I never understood why nobody seemed to care about how we felt about the teaching.  Seems that nobody thought to ask us.  Respect goes a long way with kids.  In fact, I have found that expressing my genuine curiosity about how and what a child thinks usually  promotes learning.  When I do it, I’m showing them respect.  I found an excellent essay on this topic here .

What's with my hair in this photo?

For those interested in the methodology of the study, I’m happy to answer questions at

I interviewed 12 co-researchers who went through a 30 session treatment with me.  All of them had struggled in school.  All made significant progress shown by a range of measures including pre/post testing.  I’ll use quotes from the interviews when possible  so the learners can speak for themselves.  From our interviews, I discovered 3 major themes:

1. Self-Enhancement Through Play.

This was by far the most common theme.  It was common to hear the word “fun” paired with a statement about valuable learning.  From an 11-year-old girl with reading problems:  “I felt like I wasn’t smart.  I wasn’t reading high-level books.  I was reading lower level books….[Here] I’m learning while I move, like I’ doing hands on moving around and touching things.  Just more fun and active.”

The learner was solving problems in those sessions.  The problems encouraged  a specific type of thinking.  Learners experienced the sessions as play, and play is fun.  In the book, “A Theory of Fun”, Raph Koster tells us what is fun is “exercising our brains” and that all games are edutainment. What do you think about that definition?

2. Experiencing Freedom

In the program I used, tasks allowed the learner to think and solve problems in his/her own way.  We set out to create habits of thought.  “A lot of time you get to do your own thing.  You don’t have to follow rules.”  “I got to find my own way of finding out and remembering…[I]t wasn’t like you have to follow this pattern.”  One little girl said, “You didn’t teach me anything, really…everything else [i.e., the games] taught me.”  What was really happening was that she was experimenting with her thinking.  Another teen said, “[Y]ou didn’t teach me anything.  I want to say you helped me but you didn’t teach me anything.”  What an excellent compliment!

3. Enhanced Sense of Self-Competence

A 16-year-old boy whom I will never forget illustrates this theme.  Initially, his expectations for himself were low.  “I didn’t think I could be taught very well–my mind was like, when I walked in I was like, well, I don’t see how this is gonna help.”  By the end of our sessions, a shift occurred and Steven’s potential became realized.  “I experience[d] how to put that [thinking] into my schoolwork.  I didn’t realize my learning capability.”  I kept in touch with Steven for a few years after.  He continued to do fine work in school.

Some of my co-researchers had ADD/ADHD, LD, or dyslexia diagnoses. It’s important to say that not all learners at my clinic improved.  But, certainly most did.  For my research,  I selected the learners who showed improvement on a range of measures.  After years of doing this work, it became clear that this was about more than learning.  Learning isn’t just about school  It is about life.  We use our brains in all the things we love.  Many children improved in athletics.  Steve, for example:  “I’d have to say –I’m playing lacrosse right now–if you put me back to December or any of those, I wasn’t half as good.  I didn’t pay attention period to the game.  Now its like I’m so into it, my reaction time is a lot better.  I’m a lot quicker.  Some improved in music.  Loren:  “I play cello a lot better now.”  One adult no longer got lost and can now read a map.  One girl, after improving her reading, went from “worst to first” playing the recorder.

I began to think about how we could make these experiences available to everyone.  I eventually began developing video games.  I noticed that game developers–the good ones, think like psychologists.  Lately, there is an interest in play, video games, and learning.  You can check out this article for a good discussion .  I like to focus on making games that are really fun and that target the types of thinking that helps kids become confident, happy, and free to think creatively.  Freedom and creative/playful thinking leave little room for boredom and humiliation.

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.

5 thoughts on “How Do Kids Want To Learn? My Doctoral Research Pt. 2

  1. Brilliant research and I’m so impressed that you thought to measure the students in ALL ways–not just academics. Learning is about life and life is a game. School is just one part of that huge game. You help students play the game so well and with JOY–which creates motivation!

    You teach them awareness of themselves and the world around them. Then you show them HOW to integrate themselves, in their OWN way, with their world.

    Thank you for sharing your unique and brilliant GENIUS with the world!

  2. You know what, I studied his theories during graduate school a while ago, but I’ve never read The Disciplined Mind or any of his recent books. They are on my list, though! There’s so much to read and such little time.

    Oh, and I ‘d just like to add that I think it’s a great idea to replace those violent video games with ones that actually make children think and problem solve. Parents and teachers do need to limit overall screen time, though, so I’m sure you’ll agree that they shouldn’t depend on them too much.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and fascinating research.

    1. I absolutely agree that we should limit screen time. I prefer online activities over the passive TV watching. I also think that advertising isn’t nearly as powerful online. We click off them. Well designed games, including video games, help children “go out and get” their educations. By that I mean that kids are actively experimenting, thinking, creating, and learning. I appreciate your thoughts.

  3. You know Dawn, you are right. I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. I have noticed recently, however, how good some coaching is becoming. Coaches seem to be taught to clarify language, for example. Also, the “drills” are well thought out and target specific domains, just like the tasks we used in my clinic. BTW Wendy, if you are a Gardner fan, what do you think about his vision laid out in The Disciplined Mind?

  4. It’s very interesting that you bring up the sports and music connections. Many people believe music students learn math more easily, but may not realize that the benefits go both ways. And as for sports, the stereotype that athletes often do not, let’s say, “learn well,” is often so far from the truth. If you take a close look at the athletes who really excel, you can just see the level of concentration in their eyes. The mind/body connection is so very powerful.

    When Howard Gardner started talking about multiple intelligences, he recognized that we all learn in different ways and have unique gifts. If we want to make learning more meaningful for all students, then we must support the arts and athletics as integral parts of education, instead of just thinking of them as mere “extracurricular” activities.

    Play. Freedom. Self-competence. When you stop and think about these three themes, they’re core components of athletics and the arts. So if we want to revolutionize education, we all have to help children to connect these dots.

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