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How Learning Became Work

The world is replete with educational systems, schooling options, and curricula that vary widely in philosophy and application. However, one idea that is shared by almost all educational approaches is that learning is seen as work. How did this happen? Has it always been this way?

Actually, no. It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries when life was hard and children were expected to contribute to the family economy as soon as they were able, children saw going to school as a blessing. After all, when they were at school, they did not have to work on the family farm. They saw plowing and planting as work and learning as their way out.  They knew that if they learned to read and write, their lives would be substantially better. They saw the opportunity to learn as a gift.

So how did we make the shift to kids these days doing the bare minimum and dragging their feet every step of the way through school?

We took away work and replaced it by rewarding and requiring learning.

I know that sounds crazy. You might be thinking–But if we don’t make them learn, they would just play all day! Doesn’t rewarding something make people like it more?–Well, sometimes yes. But with learning, something that is naturally enjoyed, rewards and requirements can have some unintended consequences.

Think about it. If I offered you a gooey chocolate chip cookie, you would enjoy eating it. You would maybe even be hungry for more, right? But if instead I pay you $10 to eat the cookie, you might think something like–Hmm, what’s wrong with that cookie? It must not be very good. And next time I make cookies you will think –Where’s my 10 bucks? I’m not eating this unless I get paid.

What if I sat you down at the table, put a plate of cookies in front of you and told you that you could get up after you ate all the cookies? You might eat them, but after the 3rd or 4th one, you might not be enjoying them very much, yes?Next time I make cookies, will you be excited or will you think “Ugh. More cookies. I guess I have to get this done so I can go do what I really want.”

This discussion seems silly when we are talking about something that we all agree is a treat to be enjoyed, right?

The problem is that somewhere along the way, we all started thinking about learning as a chore instead of something to be enjoyed. Our modern view of education is something akin to canned spinach. You see, if we reward or require something that is naturally enjoyable– like cookies, or learning- you can inadvertently turn a joy into a job. And that is what compulsory (mandatory) education has done in America over the last 100 years.

As soon as you reward or a require a child to read, write, study a bug, or learn a new math principle you have communicated to them that the task they accomplished was a job.  When we see something as a job that we have to get done, it robs us of the pleasure we might have gotten out of that activity.

Yes, obviously children will and do learn when we require them to and reward them for their accomplishments…they do it everyday in schools across the country. But couldn’t they learn more, remember more, and do it with more joy if we would simply let them?

So why is this work based mentality so damaging? Well, if we want our children to become robots that spend all day slaving away at the tasks that someone else puts in front of them, then there is nothing wrong with seeing learning as canned spinach. However, if we want our children to become intrinsically motivated life-long learners who are living out their true life missions, we are going to need to help children choose to learn in their free time. 

How can we make this mental shift happen? Simple.

  1. Curb our tendency to use extrinsic motivators to reward academic achievement. This means no more gold stars, stickers, points, grades, certificates, trophies etc. As soon as you “pay” a child to learn something, you have programmed them to rely on someone else’s external judgment of them in order to progress. They will always think, “What am I going to get if I do ____.” What we want them to think is, “I’m really curious about ____. I hope I have time to learn about that today.”
  2. Increase the amount of time our children are required to do real work. We are currently using education to teach work ethic, perseverance, focus, and obedience. What if we made a simple shift and started teaching these wonderful principles through chores? Then we could portray learning opportunities as the joyful experiences that they naturally are.
  3. Become life-long learners ourselves. The most powerful form of mentorship is example. If our children see us using our free time to learn and passionately pursue our own purposes instead of entertaining ourselves, our children will be much more likely to do the same. This shift can’t be an act. You can’t lead a child to a place you have not been.

Because we have lived in an educational system rooted in coercion for several generations we have grown accustomed to being compelled and rewarded. We have forgotten that learning for learning’s sake is an absolute joy. We believe the falsehood that children won’t learn unless forced. We can’t continue to extrinsically motivate children–making them addicts to gold stars and points– and then expect them to suddenly become self-motivated learners as adults. Because we ourselves were never given the opportunity to learn without force, we think it is impossible.

It is possible! We can do things differently. We can live with purpose and joy and we can teach our children to do the same.

9 thoughts on “How Learning Became Work

  1. This post really made me stop and think about how people learn and change. I heard Mr Rogers say that a child’s education almost stops when he leave his home and goes off to school. Teaching children about work is essential to having a successful adulthood, I think.

    1. Yes!There is so much foundational learning that gets skipped when we are too focused on academics at a young age.

  2. Finally this gets called out! I thought I hated history until after I graduated and I was able to discover it myself. My question is, what if a kid doesn’t want to learn certain things? If a kid doesn’t like math, is it ok to pull out the gold stars and points for just the thigns they wouldn’t ever learn by themselves?

    1. Such a good question! I’m sure there are lots of answers depending on what results you want for your children….but I feel like for me, I would not pull out the gold stars in this situation. If a child isn’t showing a desire to learn specific content that’s an indication that there are other things that are more in line with what that child’s big purpose is going to be. If, down the road, they find that their life mission requires that content, they WILL learn it. Or maybe they are just not developmentally ready to learn that content quite yet.
      I actually have a lot of thoughts about this 🙂 Maybe I will address this question in a coming post!

    2. Also, I think the way math is usually taught doesn’t inspire a love…we sit them down and try to teach them the mechanics of it. Instead play math games, read stories of mathematicians and math stories. Life of Fred is a math curriculum that is good for this, also there’s a book called Family Math.

  3. Man this really hits home for me. I use extrinsic motivators all the time, for everything, even when it’s not necessary! I guess to me using a reward system can turn an unpleasant task into a “game” of sorts…. but it has so many negative consequences! Now my kids are always trying to “make a deal” with me & will only do something I want if I do something for them too. I need to work on this one.

    1. yes! I know what you mean…it really does become an addiction of sorts. One of my boys had a friend over to play the other day and this little guy was extrinsically motivating himself! He was saying things like, “ok guys, if I finish my water all gone, then I get to play cars.” I just had to laugh 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree more! I was so blessed to be homeschooled and develop a love of learning because I had the freedom to pursue what interested me. My husband on the other hand had the classic public education and has only read maybe 2 or 3 books for “fun” in his life. Forcing kids, especially ones who struggle with academics, is setting them up to become seekers of easy entertainment, because they see learning as work to be avoided! Thanks for sharing all this information, excited to use it in our family!

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