Learning What You Have No Interest In

How about you and I start studying geology today?  Let’s spend from 1 to 3 hours a few days per week on it.  Sounds fun, eh?  If you happen to love geology, replace it with something you have absolutely no interest in learning.

Now, let’s turn it around.  Let’s say you finally get to take that dream vacation to Russia.  You have 6 months to learn as much of the language as you can.  Let’s go further, let’s say you even love the sound of spoken Russian.  You imagine having conversations with the people you will meet. It would be a lot easier to learn, no doubt.

I don’t think that this is a bland statement.  Ask a child to describe school using one word.  I do this often and hear the same word: boring!  When I hear something different, it usually involves having a teacher that “makes it fun.”  I do hear that, but not nearly enough.

If I have learned one thing in my professional career it is this:  Most people can learn what they need to know when they need to know it with no penalty.  This especially holds true if the learner really wants to know about something.  Then, it seems impossible to stop them.   So, why not let the kids lead a bit more?

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.

15 thoughts on “Learning What You Have No Interest In

  1. Your first sentence got my attention: “Keep in mind I’m not an expert.” I wonder “Who gets to speak?” Who gets included in the discussion?

    I think it is important to distinguish “school” from “education” and be careful not to confuse the two. School teachers are professionally trained to teach school. I think we are our kid’s most valuable teacher, though. I read a book called, “The Guitar Players” by James Sallis. What struck me most of all is that ALL of the guitarists he mentioned–and these were geniuses–had no formal instruction. They learned from the culture and their peers. No expert instruction produced those players.

    Under our current system, Stephen King could not teach literature in our public schools. (There may be some waiver, I don’t know for sure). He isn’t licensed as a teacher and doesn’t meet the formal requirements. Does this mean that he isn’t qualified to pass on the tools of his trade? Teaching school is a profession. Teaching one another what we know is not. Can you see what I’m getting at?

    Also, home schooled kids are performing magnificently as a whole. Great teachers are important, but that doesn’t mean that schools of education are the only places that produce good teachers. The learner is ultimately responsible for his/her education, but we sometimes speak as if education is something we do to a person.

    You made another point that interested me. I agree that we do need to avoid category errors, and guitar playing is not the same as literary analysis. I think we can generalize some things about learning in general, though. For instance, I can’t think of any subject that cannot be made beautiful or fascinating. When I was in 9th grade, a very smart teacher read to us “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst (see my post “Siblings Picking On Siblings” below: http://drmarty.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/siblings-picking-on-siblings/ ) I felt a lot of emotion about that story, and this led to curiosity. I was then prepared to analyze the story from several angles, including technique. What lines affected me? Why? How did Hurst assemble them to produce such an effect?

    It may, in large part, come down to engaging the emotions. If we can show beauty in the content, or if we have affection for our teacher, or if we are engaged through a well made film, we may invest enough emotion to inspire an in depth inquiry.

    Finally, young children may not be ready to relate to some material. I had to read Catch 22 when I was a sophomore in high school. I had no frame of reference in which to relate to the book. If I read it today, I would bring a wealth of experience to the topic and the book would be different. So, was it valuable for the sophomore Marty to read Catch 22.

  2. I am happy to be included in the conversation too, keeping in mind that I am not an expert in any capacity. I am just a mom with lots of opinions!

    I love the guitar/working out analogy. With something that you can see definable growth and a place to use the knowledge/ability one is more likely to continue to put forth their best efforts. I do see some difficulty applying this to something more esoteric, for example literary analysis. With lit. analysis it is not easy to see results as one does with muscle development or easy to use in daily living like playing the guitar. Therefore getting a student to ‘buy into’ the lesson one needs to get more creative.

    I have no experience with either of the Math programs mentioned. Although have heard from many that Math U See is fabulous.

    I don’t recall immediately “The Disciplined Mind” but very likely came across it and may have inadvertently stolen Mr. Gardner’s idea. It might be on a bookshelf in my basement!

    I will read Lochart as soon as I get a free minute, I am taking time to write this when I should be in the car picking up my kids from MathCounts!

    Thanks for all discussion points, this is a great way for me to discover new & better ways to help my children love learning.

  3. I think the conversation the three of us are having is emblematic, and so important. Marty, your references are right on, and the anxiety that our children are at risk in a race to the top whether it is in private or public schools is the thing I wish I had a magic wand for. Kids who are functioning in the top 10 percent (or higher) in mathematics or anything are especially not at risk for academic deprivation–they might be at risk for other things.

    Distinguishing between “fun” and “meaning” is important. I have learned that we can trust that what is fun for kids is always valuable. and there are ways to get kids to find meaning in things that the environment requires that they don’t automatically chose to do on their own. Bottom line, they need internal motivation to click in for their work to make a positive difference in their brain.

    1. In your recent blog post you ask, “What is school good for?” I would say that some very positive relationships happen at school. I would say that a great teacher can lead/inspire the learner to find purpose and meaning in the disciplines and in life. I think it would be great if this could be the norm. Currently, too many schools are set up to make this difficult. Rick, you do a good job in your book identifying the obstacles and offering a new vision. I think we need to get to the fundamental question of, “what is a good education?” What does it mean to be educated? I think that Expressmom and I probably have similar ideas about it. After reading your book, Rick, I am certain that we do.

  4. EM.
    Great explication of the dilemmas you feel. I want to think hard and respond at length. May I use your name? or would you prefer this conversation just between you and me?

  5. Hi Expressmom, I put your blog into my reader. I’ll PM you to tell you about an interest we share. Anyway, I noticed that the first response to that post mentions the Khan Academy, which as you know has just blown up online. He is great, but can you call it “fun”? Probably not. I think I over use the word “fun”. Fun is a part of it (much of the time), especially to gain entry into a task/topic. It isn’t the sine qua non of learning.

    I usually find myself going back to Frankl and others who arrived at “purpose” and “meaning” as the ultimate motivator. So, I like to work out and play guitar, right? But, I don’t have fun 100% of the time being disciplined at either. I find purpose and meaning in both, so that drives me.

    I would apply that to Math or other subjects by suggesting that we engage our learners (& ourselves obviously) with real problems and projects. Collaboration w/ other learners also helps.

    I have read Gardner’s vision in “The Disciplined Mind” and your final comment reminded me of it. Schools shouldn’t be factories, and I’m discouraged when my kids bring home “assembly line” busy work. I’ll be following your blog, so thanks.

    PS, what do you think about programs like Mortensen Math and Math U See? I like the emphasis on conceptual knowledge, actively building problems, and emphasis on simultaneous processing of info is great. I think this approach could be taken further, though.

  6. I think we are all basically on the same page here. If you have a minute please read my post:


    When I said “… focus more on quantifiable skills than the topics my children wish to study….” I was trying to express the idea that children learn topics they love and choose to study, quickly, with more depth, and with joy.

    My kids both test in the top 1-3% of their peers in math. Neither is excited to do their math. So it is more like work and less like fun. They use a timer, and never once do they work an extra minute. (We use a Saxon text for review, Thinkwell online, they are on a MathCounts team and attend a Math Club.) As you can see, I have tried EVERY method to make math a more enjoyable topic.

    But, given a computer and let my son create worlds of his own imagination or allow my daughter to make iMovies, they would gladly sit all day without a timer. They will receive instruction happily from anyone, anywhere, at any time on these topic. They actively seek out teachers for these subjects.

    As much as I would love to allow my kids to just focus on the topics they love, it isn’t practical. They need to take standardized tests. They will need a decent score on ISEE, the ACT and the SAT if they ever plan on attending a traditional school environment. And in that I can’t see an entrepreneurial spirit in either of them, I suspect they will join a traditional school environment sooner rather than later.

    The one point I definitely disagree with is: keeping the curriculum the same. I think schools should be less like factories trying to stamp out the same product. Why can’t we give all the children the basic foundation in every subject and then stream them according to ability/interest? A love of school would begin with knowing you are going to spend your day studying a topic you enjoy.

    Now, I must go as we have a class on Shakespeare to get to! (BTW: Shakespeare is one subject that is easy to make enjoyable!)

    If either of you know a way to make Geometry “fun” to learn, please let me know!

    1. Can I jump in for a second?
      Expressmom you ask about an idea to help make geometry interesting? I found that explaining the ideas that one can learn on pool table often helped me to hook kids on wanting to learn more… Once we looked at the game of pool as simple practice using geometry, vectors, various forces, and points of impact, it seemed to help hook all of us on wanting to find out more…

  7. Dear Express Mom, This statement: “to focus more on quantifiable skills than the topics my children wish to study.” actually misses the point as I see it. There is no disagreement about what kids need to learn. It’s it’s just that we are not getting anywhere because we are not teaching it so that kids love to go to school. (We are acting as if because they “have to learn it” they won’t like it, and that is wrong.) Keep the curriculum the same, just make sure they love to go to school–these two are not inconsistent. see: http://rickackerly.com/2010/09/27/all-kids-love-school/

  8. I don’t think we disagree here. My 1st born was in a Steiner School, but asked to go to public in 1st grade. He complains that it is “boring” but he loves the social aspects. I was pretty much a flunky until I was 17, and within 4.5 years I graduated from Michigan. So, what I’m more interested in is challenging some notions that I had as a child: 1) If I miss it early, I will never get it (I proved it wrong) 2) Some subjects are boring (not if we have creative people working on instruction) 3) Play can take a backseat to “seat learning” (we are finding that this can be harmful).

    I won’t lie to you, I am sympathetic to the ideas in the unschooling movement, but I arrived at those conclusions independently. I had never heard the term “unschooling” until this year.

    So, can you say more about the quantifiable skills? I found in my own education that any one discipline can be a springboard to the others. Do you believe that? In fact, I remember when it clicked for me that the disciplines were often looking at the same phenomena only using their own special frame of reference. This was a huge leap for me. Thanks for your input.

  9. You sound like an “unschooler” in the homeschooling community. Child directed learning = happy, engaged students.

    Even knowing this is true, I still find we have to focus more on quantifiable skills than the topics my children wish to study. 😦

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