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.