In an ideal situation? Nothing – learning goes on because students are curious about their physical and social environment and want to keep on interacting with it. Of course we don’t call it formally “learning” when they are exploring the shores, forests, parks, malls or streets of their hometown or holiday destination. We call it free time or vacation. Yet, if your students have learned how appropriate and important the question Why? is, they will make the most of their free time as well and keep on learning while wondering and reflecting upon the things they notice. (Please, read more about Why? in this excellent post: http://3diassociates.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/curiosity-questions-and-learning/)
In a less than ideal situation students refuse to wonder or ask questions about anything. These students are so fed up with school that they try to avoid all learning activities at any cost when they get out of school. Why does education do that?! How does education do that? John Holt (American author and educator http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Holt_(educator)) had fairly strong ideas about how this disconnect happens:
“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.” — John Holt
Killing the intrinsic curiosity children are born with is the worst side effect of an educational system. This is no news, scientists and educators have known that for decades. Learning starts from wondering. Science is all about wondering, and asking questions why and how. As long as you know how to wonder, you are also learning as you go.
“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” — Carl Sagan
We adults as parents and teachers can prevent the worst from happening by communicating the expectations of education with our students, and also verbalizing how learning does not only happen in school. Every child knows that games have rules, and that the rules must be obeyed so that everybody can play. So, instead of automatically trying to instill into students the idea of school being for fun, we probably should have a very honest talk with kids, and explain how school may not be fun – but how learning certainly is – and help them to understand the difference between learning and going to school. Learning is what you do for yourself. Graduating is what you do for the society/culture as a part of the game of life.
Detaching learning from going to school and restoring the intrinsic curiosity by encouraging the question Why? is the first step on building autonomy as a learner. This also helps children to take a personal approach to their learning, and also assume more responsibility over it.
The question for you as a parent or teacher is: Do you want your student to be tricked into learning involuntarily (or because of the extrinsic rewards), or do you want them to choose learning as their own choice?