What Kind of Learning Do We Want For Our Kids?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 23, 2013. 

Last week I read an article in The Atlantic that depressed me.  Titled “My Insane Homework Load Taught Me How to Game the System,” it was written by a college freshman looking back at his junior year of high school.  He says he felt a lot of pressure to get good grades because colleges like the kids who take “the hardest classes and still get straight As.”

He goes on to explain how he and his friends learned how they couldn’t do all the work and get the As. “We found shortcuts and we minimized our efforts in order to get the grades we wanted.” At his conclusion he states that this is probably what high school is for – to prepare him for college. “Maybe the point of high school is to create good students,” he writes.

What depressed me is that he makes it clear that a “good student” is very different from a “good learner.” He writes how early in his high school career he took challenging classes and got some B’s because “I was more concerned with learning thoroughly than I was with getting good grades.”

Let’s repeat that: “I was more concerned with learning thoroughly than I was with getting good grades.”

Is it just me, or shouldn’t we want our kids to learn thoroughly? I think I’m in a minority because more people are concerned with children’s grades, and yes, the kids with the grades usually go on to succeed in the workplace. So maybe I’m doing my kids a disservice by expecting them to learn thoroughly.

Since we’re homeschooling, they won’t be in school learning how to game the system, and this may hurt them in the future. But I can’t help it. I want something different for them from what I had.

I remember doing the same thing in high school and college as what this kid wrote about in the article, although I wasn’t a straight A student. For me, it wasn’t so much about learning the material as it was about doing enough to get a decent grade, hopefully an A, but I settled for Bs and Cs too.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, I was required to take one history class.  It was an 8:00a.m. class in a big lecture hall with over one hundred students. (This is quite smaller than some universities.) I never spoke to the professor directly. We had a stack of books we were required to read, including Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is over 700 pages.

I thought it was an interesting class, but the amount of material I had to absorb was overwhelming.  I took advantage of the professor’s teaching assistant’s offer to give an optional review of the material every morning before class at 7:30a.m.  Only a handful of students showed up that early. I’ll never forget what I learned from that teaching assistant one morning.

As a graduate student, the teaching assistant had more required reading than us undergraduates. Someone must have asked him how he managed it all, and he explained to us that it’s impossible to read everything. You simply had to figure out what is most important and read that. Maybe he said to do a lot of skimming…I don’t remember the details. But it was the first time I was introduced to the idea that I didn’t have to do all my homework. Not that I always did all my homework, but apparently I didn’t learn how to game the system in the proper way because I was more of a B student.

When I was a junior and senior, I loved my English literature classes, and I did quite well. But I was spending a good twenty hours a week doing one course’s required reading, so I didn’t always have it in me to do everything for every class. (And, yes, you see I didn’t become a rocket scientist either.)

Call me an idealist, but I would like children and young adults to learn how to become good learners. I want them to get excited about learning. Education should be more than teaching kids how to game the system.

4 thoughts on “What Kind of Learning Do We Want For Our Kids?

  1. I agree with your main point here, and I, too, want my children to become good learners and to develop deep knowledge about topics. But there is a difference between gaming the system and managing a workload. I have a PhD and incredibly deep knowledge about a few topics, as well as familiarity with many more. Had I read every book thoroughly and investigated every single source related to my topic, I never would have finished anything.

    Here are two examples from my own education to illustrate how I see the difference. In college, I had a double major in Business Administration and English. In my senior capstone business class, we had to run a virtual shoe company. Each team had a disk that we would take back to our dorms, load it into a computer, and manipulate things like production, private label, hiring, etc. We would then take it back to class and the professor would upload each teams information and we could see how our company compared with the others in the class. The first few weeks, we thought carefully about each decision, weighing the real and non-material costs and benefits of various options, putting into theoretical practice the principles we were learning in class, and each week, we were at the bottom. Eventually, we said to heck with it and just manipulated the numbers to get the projections as high as possible regardless of what we had to do. We didn’t think about anything….just tried various combinations, and in the end we were first or second in the class. The stakes were high — 25 or 30% of our grade was tied to this “game” and we managed, not by learning anything, but by gaming the system. But perhaps that is the lesson we were supposed to learn about running a business.

    In my English classes and though graduate school, I had to learn, not how to game the system, but how to read and learn in order to acquire a thorough knowledge without becoming stuck in the research phase forever. The more you learn, the more you see there is to learn. I had to figure out when it was important to know things thoroughly and when a cursory knowledge would suffice. I had to learn how to define my research questions and purpose in order to direct my research. Answering those questions often involves skimming. I found that introductions to academic books are incredibly useful — they provide overviews of each chapter that help you figure out where to go and what you need to read more deeply. Reading introductions and selective passages gave me a broad knowledge about a topic and helped me define my own ideas as well as allowed me to compare and synthesize the ideas of others. This is an important skill for any researcher. Beyond that, you have many competing demands that require you to manage your workload. I usually had 20+ page research papers for 2-3 classes I was taking, my own independent research for my MA thesis and dissertation, and class prep & grading for the 2-3 classes I was teaching.

    So the point I am trying to make is that skimming and learning to manage a research workload is not the same as gaming the system. It is a necessary skill that one must master in order to become a productive scholar with any kind of existence outside the library.

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    1. Erica, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you, and you found the words that I failed to find while writing the column. I realize that in college and life, we have to manage our work loads. What makes me sad is that grades are becoming more important than learning thoroughly when a student might actually want to learn the material and read the books. By having to cover too much material faster than the student can manage, a child may get behind, as I did, and then be perpetually behind, always having to find shortcuts that aren’t necessarily “managing a workload” but “just getting by.”

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    2. interesting thoughts. i was an english major and *just* regaled some family and friends with stories about “managing my workload” during college and how i managed to write papers on books i’d never read (and receive As on them) and take a final exam on a dozen novels that i hadn’t read either (A on that as well).

      managing my workload? i sure had to do that. every class required me to read enormous amounts of material and professors were famous for saying, “i don’t care about your other classes — don’t complain to me.” i was also working my way through school, so unlike most of my classmates, i was in an office half the day doing a “real job.” my homework had to fit around earning money for rent and food and commuting back and forth.

      but managing your workload is a slippery slope to gaming the system and where exactly does one dissolve into the other? my classmates weren’t reading the material either; they were going to parties and playing frisbee on the quad and taking the bus home to chicago on the weekends. i once sat in an american lit class on day one and when the professor said “you can get an A in my class without reading any of the novels on the reading list,” 90% of the class got up and walked out. that’s all they needed to hear.

      i got my degree without gaining deep knowledge about anything and so did many (if not all) of my classmates. perhaps if i had stayed for a ph.d. i would have achieved that at some point. but i differentiate between real learning and the joke that passed for it when i was in college. all of the deep learning i’ve done has been outside of a classroom.

      i am sure my sons could “manage their workload” at college and learn to game the system if necessary (or if they just wanted more Xbox time) but i know it would frustrate and upset them to give up really learning about something they wanted to learn about because the system isn’t set up for that to happen. i know they would, because that’s how i felt all those years ago.

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      1. there’s also the point that if you are surrounded by people who are just going through the motions and doing the minimum, and if it is clear that any effort you exert is just for your own satisfaction (because there’s no other benefit to doing work that will go unrewarded — any learning/understanding/effort that goes beyond the minimum expected), then you have a system that not only doesn’t encourage authentic learning but actively discourages it. the system teaches the student that — at least in this context — real learning is a sucker’s game.

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