What Inspires Learning?

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Perhaps the adage needs to be updated: You can sit a kid in class but you can't make him learn.

The latest "report card" for a local school district is depressing. They are failing to teach math to 84% of the 10th grade students.


Is it lack of funding for state of the art tools (they want to raise taxes by $51.5 million to stay afloat)? Is it the student's unmotivated peers (as someone suggested on Facebook)? Is it the fact that students are forced to be in school, and so are in an act of rebellion? Is it that there is a fundamental problem with math education in the US? Is it that parents aren't involved enough? Is the district using the wrong math program for the kids? Is it something else entirely?

I don't know. I doubt it's any one of those things, and I'm pretty sure that none of them are the core of the problem. My guess: These kids aren't inspired.

This begs the question: What inspires learning?

Great teachers certainly can. This is the story of films like Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, and Take the Lead. But I'm going to hazard a guess that it's not the content that these teachers offered, nor even the way they presented it, per se, but how they treated their students that made the difference. Great teachers love their students and are able to help them see what they can become through the content of their class. Could this be why students so often ask of higher level math, "But when would I ever use this?" If math isn't applicable to my life and helping me become a better person, why bother?

I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Yeats:

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

This is why literature is such a great way to learn: It lights a fire. It allows us to see how knowledge can be applied to life. It opens the world before us and lets us glimpse what we can become. Granted, it's not all that effective at pragmatics of memorizing our times tables or solving quadratic equations. Literature also isn't very good at teaching us the specifics of amorphous solids or lift. But by learning about people like George Washington Carver and the Wright Brothers, we learn how important and rewarding math, science, and hard work can be.

And that is inspiring.

What inspires you and your children to learn?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Empty Nester

P.S. A reminder: I have the privilege of knowing some of the brightest public schooled kids in the world. They love learning and are doing well in school. Many of them have taken crazy math classes way beyond my comprehension level. So while school districts continue to receive poor marks over all, the system--for whatever reason--does work for some students.

Homeschooling--especially literature-based homeschooling--is a great option. But it's not the only way to successfully educate your children.

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