What’s love of learning got to do with it?

It’s great if children “love learning,” but it’s not a goal, writes Mark Bauerlein on Brainstorm. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for parents to instill a love of learning — and to push “hard work and discipline” and achievement in math and science. Not all kids are going to love it.

How many conscientious, education-conscious parents who limit TV time and monitor homework end up with children who declare, “I hate math!”? Furthermore, if the “love of learning” message is explicit, young children may extend it into a new and damaging corollary: “If I don’t like it, it isn’t worth learning.” (I’ve heard this termed the “Sesame Street effect.”) That is, an absence of love turns into a justification for blowing off homework.

In addition to excess sentimentality, “love of learning” is too abstract, Bauerlein argues.

. . . children don’t love learning per se. They love history and stories and cell biology. They want to know about what happened at Little Round Top, or to find out how Odysseus escapes from Polyphemus, or observe a cell divide. In fact, the same student might love to collect and classify tree leaves and hate to read a poem. . . .  In emphasizing love of learning, the process of education, we under-appreciate the specific content that inspires the feeling. We should, instead, urge parents to instill a love of numbers and words and ideas and natural things . . .

Parents should tell children that learning is important, not necessarily lovable, Bauerlein concludes.

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  1. I think children do have a natural love for learning but not everything that ought to be learned is fun. It’s like learning to play a sport or a musical instrument- the individual has to drill the basic skills in order to get to the fun part of playing a game or performing in a recital/concert.

  2. Great post. I will take this one step further. In education, there are those teachers who feel that the the top priority is for students to love learning, to appreciate literature, to become life-long learners. I fully agree that yes we want our children to love and appreciate learning, but that should not be the goals that drive our teaching. The priority should be to teach specific skills that we can measure to see if students are becoming proficient in them. Appreciation and love is important, but not measurable.

  3. Alan,

    We need to teach specific CONTENT and skills.

  4. Bauerlin is right- but we say ‘love of learning’ when we mean the love of finding stories and answers.

    Gone are he days when specific content was enough to guarantee a good future – we are now in the 21st century and specific content is free on the web – we need to teach children how to learn, how to satisfy their need for stories and for finding answers. Until someone comes up with a better phrase I will stick to ‘love of learning’!

  5. I love learning.

    I always loved learned.

    I still love learning. It is just about the best thing.

    I give a lot of credit to my 2nd grade teacher, my 4th grade teacher, my 7th grade math teacher, and a few others along the way.

    Yes, what we learn matters. Yes, content is incredibly important. But we need to remember that beyond the early grades, it’s not the explicit content that kids need to remember as much as an approach or discipline so that they can learn in the future.

    So love of learning really does matter.

  6. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Learning is so much easier when one is interested, whatever one’s age is. The beauty of homeschooling is being able to tailor instruction to interest. I have a contract with my granddaughter that I will do everything in my power to help her pursue her interests and to make subjects interesting to her but that from time to time she must concentrate on something because I believe it is important for her. It seems to work. She lets me know when she’s lost her interest or concentration on something. She sometimes asks to work in off hours such as evenings or weekends.

    I don’t know how you do this with a large group.

  7. Love of learning is a byproduct of conditioning. No child is born with it nor will they develop it without the actions of their parents.
    Why do young children do things? Well, to satisfy their needs for food, shelter, and love. Encouraging children to learn at a young age begins the process. Playing with them, clapping when they do something new… each of these sends a message to the child and makes it likely that the child will repeat the behavior.
    But we can’t stop there. Children must be taught the importance of success and failure. Every time I brought home a test in elementary school that I did well on, my parents rewarded me with praise, a dinner of my choosing, a toy,, etc. If I didn’t do well on something, my parents encouraged me to to better and helped me to study, practice, etc.
    By the time I hit middle school, I began to internalize a love of learning and of success. My parents pulled away the materialistic rewards but kept the meaningful ones. They gently pushed me into other areas like sports.
    I love to learn…even from my failures.

    This is what is missing from students these days, even in families that encourage learning. They aren’t taught the importance of success until middle or high school, when it has become too late for some. Partially this is the fault of elementary schools, who socially promote and give meaningless effort-based grades, so parents end up encouraging failure without realizing it. Other parents go too far to embrace their child’s failures because they feel its just who they are, not realizing that like every human, their children have an amazing capacity to learn and better themselves if they are prodded.

  8. Well, I don’t know how we did it, but we certainly USED to get this across to kids. It was in the air we breathed when I was a kid. That learning was important and could certainly be fun and interesting was everywhere. We cherish the teachers who challenged us to do our very best, because from them we learned the most, including a love of learning.

    Kids today had BETTER love learning. If they’re going to compete successfully in the modern world, they’re going to have to be life-long learners.

  9. Love of learning is a byproduct of conditioning. No child is born with it

    I disagree. All 3 of my children are naturally curious and have been from the time they were infants. In fact, we got comments from the nurses/doctors with each on how alert they were as newborns. Piaget famously called babies “little scientists in the crib” and I absolutely believe it.

  10. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    I’m with CW on her general notion: kids have a “love of learning” ex ante, but modern schools are pretty much designed to kill it. Which they do with amazing success.

  11. When I hear a school official announce, “Our children become life-long learners,” I know that nothing substantive will follow. There will be paeans of praise for the teachers, families, and administrators who have created an educational heaven on earth.

    A document outlining curricular expectations will not be available.

  12. That native curiosity of babies is a survival mechanism… as their senses develop they inspect their surroundings, much in the same way that babies attempt to put everything in their mouths to taste. Yes, it is ‘learning’ as they acquire information from their environment, but it has little in common with the learning that we expect students to do in school. Piaget’s work, while it makes one feel warm and fuzzy, confuses rapid neural development in newborns and infants with focused book learning.
    Imagine yourself walking along the road and seeing bright flashes of lights in the distance. Most people would check to see what it is… acting on that impulse like babies do as their senses develop is nothing like the intentional self-guided learning as Piaget proposed.

  13. Peace Corps says:

    At 3 years old, my son announced that he wanted to “know everything.” Whenever his parents used a word he didn’t know, he’d ask what it meant. At 8 now, he is still very inquisitive, and most of his classmate, in varying levels, are as well.

  14. “Well, I don’t know how we did it, but we certainly USED to get this across to kids.”

    Oh, nonsense. We never did any such thing. If anything, school was far more of a grind in years past.

    Love of learning is an elitist fantasy that really should be shot and killed permanently. I’m so tired of educational snobs yammering on about how fabulous they (or their kids) are for loving learning–or talking about some teacher who gave it to them. No, they didn’t. And in all likelihood, you don’t “love learning” as much as you say you do–you just love thinking of yourself as that type of person.

    (And before anyone points the finger at me, I hate learning and I really, really hate school. I also got two different master’s degrees in my 40s from two different elite universities, and have three teaching credentials in academic subjects. Don’t kid yourself about how important the sentiment is.)

  15. It is better to say “intellectual curiosity” than “love of learning.” The latter makes it sound as if kids love learning like they love pizza or riding a Ferris wheel. To me intellectual curiosity does not imply a love of anything, but rather an intrinsic drive to find out who, what, when, where and why. I don’t “love” learning about Alexander the Great, but I do have this inclination to find out why the guy was called “the Great.” I have this continual need to know more about things, something which I see in very few of my students.

  16. So what? Intellectual curiosity is almost certainly correlated with cognitive ability. The smarter you are, the more likely you are to be intellectually curious. But it’s not as if intellectual curiosity is useful for more than 5-10% of the jobs in existence.

    People are confusing their own values and preferences with absolutes. It’s absurd.

  17. I agree with Cal. But it’s not so much an elitist fantasy as it is an educationist one. They like to take credit for things they don’t do and ignore what they can do. I saw a lot of this when I was at the School Without Walls. The school loved to take credit for instilling what can be best termed “hobbies” in kids. They would then pretend that you could never find these activities anywhere else.

  18. “Learning” is a very broad concept. Many kids and adults love reading (one form of learning) but don’t love memorizing the periodic table (another form of learning).

    Rather than focus on what may be vague or unrealistic (a generalized love of learning) we think parents should emphasize the importance of learning and relative priority of school. In lives cluttered with activities, sometimes that message fails to get through.

    Reading & math enrichment for K-5