Friday, April 29, 2011

What is good to know...

This week the sign outside our neighborhood elementary school reads:
"Whatever is good to know is hard to learn."
After a quick google, the only source I could find was in the introduction to a course at Princeton entitled, "Animal learning and decision making: Psychological, Computational and Neural Perspectives." A three hour class taught on Tuesdays from 1:30 - 4:30 p.m. the Fall of 2010. I hope the students who took the course ate a light lunch, brought a big mug of coffee and were intrinsically motivated to learn about the topic.  At the bottom of a screen about operant conditioning was the quote, cited as a Greek proverb. Since the e-mail addresses for the professors was listed I am tempted to ask them why they chose to add this quote, particularly since the other screens are quote free. I also want to know if they believe this quote. Is it true? Do they have scientific proof, that "whatever is good to know is hard to learn"?

Do you believe this is true?

What have you learned in your lifetime? To talk, walk, cook, drive a car?  What do you love to do? Is it hard to learn the skills to do something that you enjoy? Even if it's challenging, takes time and there are frustrating moments, if you are engaged, excited and interested, learning does not feel hard.

In my own life I have enjoyed learning to bake, garden, crochet and blog. There may have been moments of frustration when the recipe turned out inedible, the slugs ate my lettuce, I had to rip out all of the stitches and try again, and my writing fell flat, but it wasn't hard. It was part of the journey.

What is good to know?

Do you need to know the same things as someone who lives somewhere else?  What is good to know in Florida definitely differs from what is good to know in Alaska. What is good to know in Australia is decidedly different from what is good to know in Greenland. What is good to know in Brooklyn or LA is different from what is good to know in Lost Springs, Wyoming. What is good for me to know is not necessarily what is good for you to know, you may not need to know anything about yarn, garden seeds and vegetarian cooking.

What message was the school trying to give children  by posting this message on the board? If you were a 10 year old on a school bus going past that sign what would you think? "Today I have to go to school and I'm supposed to learn stuff and it's going to be hard."  "What's so good about this stuff I've got to learn for the test on Friday?" "If it's going to be hard why bother." What purpose is served by sending children the message that learning is hard? 

While I was thinking about the message on the sign I happened to read Alfie Kohn's article, “'Well, Duh!' -- Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring"  number eight on this list is:
"8. Just because a lesson (or book, or class, or test) is harder doesn't mean it's better
First, if it’s pointless to give students things to do that are too easy, it’s also counterproductive to give them things that they experience as too hard. Second, and more important, this criterion overlooks a variety of considerations other than difficulty lever by which educational quality might be evaluated.
We know this, yet we continue to worship at the altar of "rigor." I've seen lessons that aren't unduly challenging yet are deeply engaging and intellectually valuable. Conversely, I've seen courses -- and whole schools -- that are indisputable rigorous...and appallingly bad."

For children if something is hard to learn perhaps it is not relevant to their life or interests. Perhaps it isn't being presented in a manner that fits the child's learning style. Perhaps they aren't cognitively ready to learn whatever it is that someone else has decided would be good for them to know.
Learning is good. Learning is fun, engaging, and exciting. Learning is innate, we do it from before we are born and keep doing it all our lives. But forget the ideas that learning is hard and that making children learn things is good. Those ideas quickly snuff a child's natural love of learning that blossoms when a child is learning at their own pace, in their own way, following their passions.

 "What is essential is to realize that children learn independently, not in bunches; that they learn out of interest and curiosity , not to please or appease the adults in power; and that they ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it." ~ John Holt ~ How Children Learn


  1. oh my! What a hideous sign to see anywhere. I can think of any number of things that are both good to know and were amazingly easy to learn. And what's easy or useful will vary from person to person. What a dreadful thing to tell kids on a sign at school!

  2. It was easy for me to learn: that was a stupid quote.