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How Schools Are Killing Love of Learning

Written By Geoff Nixon . May 5, 2015

Don’t lose sight of lifelong learning as the ultimate educational outcome for your child.

Are you concerned that your child does not love learning the way he should?  Is he reading for pleasure in a way that suggests he is on a path to lifelong learning?  For most parents the answer to both questions is no.

This really matters. There is no educational outcome more important than developing a habit of lifelong learning.  This determines how you develop as an individual and how you engage in and enjoy the world around you.  Lifelong learning means being self-directed and always in exploration and questioning mode, being able to frame problems in order to ask the right questions, to find and filter information, to think creatively, and much more.

Lifelong learning requires a careful nurturing of the love of learning throughout a school career. Unfortunately, this is not happening.  Education has changed drastically since the introduction of education reform, most notably the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  Education has lurched towards a business-principles system, and love of learning is fading as a valued educational outcome. Love of learning is not only not being nurtured, learning is more and more associated with negative emotions — stress, frustration, failure, drudgery and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

This accumulation of stress around learning has been forced on schools and on teachers by an education reform movement focused on test results as the overwhelming measure of educational outcomes. These reforms go against what teachers know to be good teaching practice, leading to more teachers than ever leaving the profession.

Despite the not insignificant teacher push-back, they are losing the battle — every year test results gain a little more ascendancy as American politicians and regulators stay focused on surpassing Shanghai. It’s a “sputnik moment” for education —  we are participating in the wrong race, pushing to catch up with Shanghai test scores to the detriment of love of learning and exploring individual talents.

Here’s how the schools are killing love of learning and what you can do about it.

Avoid Homework Stress

American education has always been a believer in homework.  Since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 there has been an escalation in homework, particularly in earlier grades as the new standards require higher achievement at an earlier level.  The very tough Common Core standards will further escalate this trend, despite the efforts of BanBusy and other anti-homework movements.

There is no research to back the value of homework, certainly at elementary level. John Hattie, an educational researcher that does meta study research, aggregating all of the studies on an educational activity, like homework, concludes homework has a zero effect on reading scores, confirmed by the most recent international PIRLS reading and literacy test (done in 2011) as presented by Assessment Matters. This same report does find that homework is helpful later on in school, primarily for math.

schools are killing love of learning

4th graders who have no homework did best on PIRLS, an international reading test.

Anti-homework advocates go further by saying homework does not improve educational outcomes.  They will attribute a negative effect to homework due to the lost opportunities to spend time with family or participate in structured and unstructured sports and play.

We have two further concerns with homework:

  • The drudgery and its impact on attitudes toward learning and love of learning
  • For struggling learners who face tough days, homework provides an added opportunity to fail after school hours

If your child is one of those kids who takes too long over homework or puts a lot of energy into resisting homework, we believe it is OK to fight back. Don’t add to the pressure. And if there is more than an hour of homework in elementary or middle school, talk to the teacher. Tell them you are playing a “long game” with your children — you want them to grow up with positive relationships to learning, as lifelong learners, and all this homework is not helping!


Another way schools are killing love of learning has been through the adoption of standards over the last 20 years.  While the debate we should be having is whether we should even have standards or not, the debate today is only about which standards schools should use —  Common Core, State or district standards.

Standards come with a price.  Think about a swimming standard with three kids:  one is afraid of the water, one is just learning to swim, the last is an accomplished swimmer. The standard is to swim a length of the pool.  For the child afraid of the water swimming the length of a pool is mission impossible.  For him, it’s a FAIL — it’s a word he’s going to have to get used to.  At the other end, for the accomplished swimmer it’s a breeze — no need to stretch or push himself, he can cruise through school.  For the new swimmer the standard is an achievable and likely motivating goal.

Standards also limit individuality as outlined by Professor Yong Zhao in his extremely entertaining presentation at the The Network for Public Education National Conference.  They encourage educators to think of children as widgets — they do not allow for developing individual talents, where the most positive learning experiences occur.

A child’s relationship to standards impacts his connection to learning:

  • For the struggling learners, standards define failure brightly as it compares them starkly to where society has deemed they should be.  It’s a label they will find hard to shake until they leave school or find a school that does not use standards.
  • For the accomplished learners, standards are not given a second thought. They are not pushed or challenged since they are at standard. This can develop into a negative connection to learning through boredom and lack of interest in a standards-defined world.

The impact of standards on reading is even more worrying.  Reading is a skill that develops over a long time, and develops very differently from one child to the next.  More than anything, children need to maintain a positive association with reading through this process so that they have a chance of becoming avid readers in later life.

However, standards create pressures that can turn a student off reading for life.  They map out an ideal progression in reading skills that many children do not follow.  And so instead of giving a child time to get into reading, expectations are forced on these struggling readers, often leading to a negative connection that never goes away.  If this is your child, one solution is to get outside reading help to address the cognitive and other impediments to reading progress to try to break this cycle of reading futility as soon as possible.

Parents need to be aware of the risks for their child and their proximity to standards.  If your child is struggling, you may want to take action to either shield him from the failure label or find a school that does not judge in that way.  And if your child is excelling, be on the lookout for signs of boredom or a cruising mindset — it’s such a shame to see a jaded attitude, particularly in young children who are born lovers of learning.

Testing and Then More Testing

One of the realities of being a student in America is that there is always a “big” test coming up. In this respect, school life in America is very different to many other countries.

The constant test-taking takes a toll, especially in the US where the over-loaded curriculum means everything is on a fast cycle. First, the teacher lectures from the front of class (versus group format discovery learning that is taking place in many of the world’s leading education systems). This is not only boring for students, it’s a grind.

Then, there’s the testing of material, which typically involves memorization — again, joyless. In fact, nothing about this is interesting or designed to spark curiosity or creativity.  This memorize-test-forget-repeat cycle is getting even more intense as the education reform movement adds layers of teacher and school accountability that inevitably involves more tests and more test prep.

testing is stressful for childrenRight now, most schools are in reform mode.  Your child is stuck in the middle of a battle between reformers who think teachers are “doing their damn jobs” and need more accountability and teachers who are in “circle the wagons mode”, stalling and avoiding, looking to be trusted and respected as professionals.  Meanwhile, schools are not focused on helping your child become a lifelong learner by helping him learn to love learning now.  In fact, they are headed in the exact opposite direction.

Again, your response as a parent should be to resist.  There is a large opt-out movement going on right now as covered by famous educational bloggers like Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss.  However, having your child opt-out of the test is only the tip of the iceberg.  The larger damage to love of learning is the time spent on test prep, the unnecessary stress around the tests, and narrowing of the curriculum to measurable outcomes, which excludes fun stuff like discovery and creativity.

Finally, testing (and standards for that matter) is limiting.  It trains children to see the world as narrow, filled with finite buckets of knowledge that need to be memorized. Students learn to study what is needed to pass the test, nothing more, nothing less.

If your school is test-obsessed, be aware that opting out of tests is not going to make much difference.  To help your child, you would need the tests themselves removed, which will hopefully free up time for imaginative teaching of things that can’t be measured — creativity, imagination, curiosity for instance.

Overloaded Curriculum

Another way schools are killing love of learning is by rushing through a huge, half-inch deep, mile-wide curriculum.  The Singapore lesson of “teach less, learn more” is lost on our schools:

  • Rather than have a chance to explore a new subject, time pressures mean most students are spoon-fed by the teachers — it’s quicker and more efficient (and more boring).
  • Each new topic offers a chance to think creatively about what if, why not.  Again, time pressures mean this does not happen as often as it should.

This superficial approach to content is not satisfying and does not stimulate.  Moreover the swift moving from topic to topic can be over-whelming for many students, creating another negative connection to learning.

College Applications

The surging interest in gap years by high school graduates in America is to some degree due to the cumulative pressures of high school these days.  The college admissions process puts insane pressures on students, who hear from family, peers and teachers that if they don’t get into a “good” college their life is over.

This of course is far from the truth.  While there is some correlation between happiness and education, as researched by Thomas Kastouleas and others, the arithmetical connection between college and life outcomes — the better the college the better the life — is completely imaginary.  So many other factors come into play.

And yet high school students suffer enormously about their college entrance, feeling the heat not only from parents, but also from peers and schools whose reputations depend on their graduates doing well.  This leads to burn out, as outlined starkly in the film  Race to Nowhere, and is a major reason that the US has the lowest college completion rate in the OECD, with only 55% of  2008 high school graduates completing a degree in 6 years, i..e, by the end of 2014.

Parents have a role to play here.  Go easy on your child when discussing college choices.  Don’t add to the negative connection to learning, but rather try to make the college or other choices more of an adventure and a journey of discovery rather than a high stakes endeavor.

By not pushing your child to make the grades and build the resume required to get into that stretch goal college, you are reducing the risk of him being one of the 45% that don’t complete their college course.

Creating Positive Connections To Learning

These three influences — homework, testing and college applications — combine powerfully to connect learning to negative emotions in all students.  For students that struggle in school, where disappointment and failure is a big part of their day, the negative connection to learning is even stronger.

inspire your child

If you are powerless to protect your child from these negative forces, you can at least work ways to counteract or lessen their impact by making learning fun and creating positive connections to learning.

This includes injecting imagination, curiosity and creativity into your home routine, possibly around school assignments or in other endeavors such as road trips, visits, participating in events that require imagination.   This WAHM article also suggests modeling enthusiasm around learning for your child.

Your Next Steps

If you want your child to be an enthusiastic lifelong learner — a person who actively engaged in learning in career and life, curious, always exploring, creative, enthusiastic, always looking for new answers — then that means leaving school with a positive connection to learning.  What you don’t want is a graduate who burned out or jaded or who isn’t interested in thinking or questioning (“especially if it’s not going to be on the test”) and who is not energized by the world around him.

If you value lifelong learning for your child, you need to recognize that the schools are not on your side here.  This is a goal you will need to pursue on your own.  This includes inoculating your child from any negative connections to learning that are occurring at school, by taking a long-term approach to reading and learning.

If your child is not a good learner, get outside help — a child will not love reading or learning if he’s not good at it.  If he is a good learner, but is jaded or worn down by the system, it is up to you to protect him as much as possible from the pressures and to model learning enthusiasm.  This is not easy, but given the school’s current preoccupations, it’s you or no one.

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