What Would Have Made Me Want To Study as a Schoolkid?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 23, 2019

I considered my K-12 education a 13-year prison sentence. I did my mediocre best getting mostly Cs and Bs, with rare As and Ds. My good grades didn’t reflect my ability but showed what I was actually interested in. I had a lot of great teachers that tried hard to get me to learn, but I didn’t cooperate. I wish to apologize to all of them now, especially my 12th-grade math teacher. I just didn’t want to pay attention, study, or do homework. Life was full of fun diversions and I found no incentive to make the most of my school years.

I regret that now and it’s really pointless to worry about it now, but it is an interesting problem to think about solving. How do you get kids to want to study? A certain percentage of children respond well to traditional classroom learning, but most don’t. When I’m shopping in used bookstores I look at K-12 textbooks and I’m horrified by how much crap they want to stuff in a young person’s head.

Part of the problem is society wants kids to acquire proficiency in a specific set of subjects before they’re 18. Then they up the ante by a couple of magnitudes for higher education. Before you can start life you have to be programmed with 400,000 facts. We’re told we need that many factoids to succeed in life but I doubt many believe it. I always considered it cruel and unusual punishment. I never knew what crime I committed to deserve such torture.

And it’s not like I didn’t enjoy learning as a child. I was a bookworm from the 4th-grade on, reading several hundred books while serving my K-12 time. I just didn’t want to read the books teachers wanted me to read.

I don’t know if I was a typical child. But I’d guess most kids didn’t like the system either. I’ve often thought about what if I could have designed my own pedagogy. It’s a fun thing to fantasize about. Try it and post a comment. I have come to some conclusions for me only, not a general system.

  1. The most important thing I should have been taught as a kid is about the world of work and how I’d spend forty years doing something that I could either like or dislike. I needed to learn as early as possible if I didn’t find my right vocation I’d spend those years in quiet desperation at best and crushing resentment at worse.
  2. I needed to have been shown by experience that there are many kinds of tasks and work environments. After high school, it took me several jobs to realize I preferred working inside rather than outside. I eventually learned I rather work with machines than people, but I liked an environment with well-educated people, and tasks that produced something useful to humanity rather than the bottom line. And I didn’t need to be the boss. I’m pretty sure I could have learned all of that in grade school.
  3. I learned too late in life that I loved science and technology. Again, I can imagine ways to get kids to learn subjects they like while they are still in grade school. It might require spending some classroom time in real work environments.
  4. What I sorely missed was a real incentive to study. I was told an education led to a good job but I never knew what a good job meant. I think study incentives need to be more immediate. I think the goal of being freed from classes would have been the incentive that would have worked for me. In other words, tell me the week’s goal. If I can finish by Thursday I could have Friday off. If I could finish in four weeks of a six weeks period, I could have two weeks off. If I could finish the year in March, I could have a long summer. Or even, if I could finish at 14 I could bum around for a few years before college. That would have inspired me to study harder. (I know that K-12 schools also serve as babysitters, so being freed from classes might mean more library days, or sports, or clubs, or other school activities. Although I wanted to be out on the streets or at home.)
  5. For such a finish-early system to work we’d need to carefully define and quantify what needs to be learned. Right now schools are one-size-fits-all. Not every kid wants to learn everything every other kid learns. Society needs to decide what subjects form a basic education, and what should be electives. We should find creative ways to test everything. Educators have gone nuts with cultural literacy.
  6. Society is discovering all kinds of learning and teaching methods. They didn’t have personal computers when I was little. But I think if they did I would have learned best in the classroom and taking quizzes at night on the computer for homework. If testing had been more like computer games and trivia contests they would have been fun. Competing for high scores would have pushed me, but grades never did in the least. If every subject had a rating like in chess, that would have been fun.

I’m curious if anything could have motivated me to study as a kid. It’s too bad we don’t have time machines. It would be a fun challenge to go back in time and see if could motivate my younger self.

Uh, maybe that’s an idea for a science fiction novel.





12 thoughts on “What Would Have Made Me Want To Study as a Schoolkid?”

  1. The one thing the school system doesn’t do – and I suspect the NZ and US systems were the same in this regard – seems to be to prepare kids for actually functioning in the adult world. Your school experiences seem to mirror mine – I think I’ve mentioned them before. What I do remember was my Mum looking across at the US system (which she knew about via penfriend in Minneapolis) and saying how enlightened it was compared to the NZ one, which was derived from the British system. What demotivated me at primary school, specifically, was that it had nothing to do with education and everything to do with breaking children into traumatised submission to the teacher via a relentless barrage of physical and psychological punishments. The behaviours required of the kids – sitting still, keeping quiet, and concentrating on stuff they were desperately uninterested in – were the exact opposite of what kids do naturally. The curriculum, such as it was, had no option for kids to pursue what interested them, if something caught their fancy amidst the barrage of punishments and abuse. I still consider that I learned nothing at primary school and very little at secondary. Could I go back now and advise my younger self how to act? I have often pondered this issue: I don’t think I could have.

  2. I pretty much sat in the back of the classroom and read books. Since most of the grading in Junior High School and High School was based on mostly multiple-choice exams (which I was good at), teachers mostly ignored me since I wasn’t causing trouble and I scored well on tests. That’s when my habit of reading a book a day started.

    College was a little more challenging because many courses required research papers. I mastered that skill, too. Today, with GOOGLE and all the online resources, writing research papers would be even easier for me.

    I ended up on the other side of the classroom desk as I spent 40 years as a college professor–teaching students how to read effectively, take multiple-choice exams, and write good research papers that are fun to write…and to read.

    I loved being a college student. I loved being a college professor. But now I like being retired with thousands of books waiting to read and thousands of music CDs waiting to played. Life is Good.

  3. My 14yo son hates school but does well enough (Bs). But he does the bare minimum. I too think the system sucks but the answer lies within the kid under his parents’ guidance. He wants to homeschool he can but that doesn’t mean fortnite 9 hours per day.

    Try explaining that to my kid. 😉

    1. Claudette, does your son have any idea what he wants to do in the work world? I don’t think I would have liked being homeschooled either. A whole lot of my education was being with the other kids. I liked classroom lectures, but often they went as fast as the slowest kid. When I went to technical school, classes were 4 hours. Three hours of working on our own, which included interacting with the teacher if needed, and then a final our of lecture and assignments. Trying to figure out things first by myself was more fun.

  4. Some things that need to be taught will not come easily or willingly. As a friend once shared, everything doesn’t come by interest and fun. I believe it doesn’t have to happen thus. Having said that, I’ve also always worked to ensure the students have their basics down and raise the bar of interests and creativity. Some things just needed to be done. Other things, like creative writing, plays, and science projects could engage creativity, even discussing how history applies today, then encouraging class discussions. To some degree, it’s really up to the youth to wonder and discover. In this, I’ve talked with students to find for themselves, what they are interested in and pursue them. The ones who hear this start to explore and pursue interests.

  5. Yes, Dolphinwrite – some things must be taught, no matter if the students are not interested or do not understand why a thing must be learned – some day they will, and will thank you for it. As a child, I hated piano lessons. My father played by ear and I wanted to do the same. He insisted I learn theory and how to read music. I didn’t get it then, but I do now.

  6. Though I didn’t like school (My favorite subject was P.E.), the learning was still good. Of course, had my folks taught me at home, hiring a tutor for areas they didn’t have strength, that would have worked too. Thankfully, I have a curious nature and learn much on my own. Parents are the ones who set the tone, and by their example and efforts, can instill interest and responsibility.

      1. Art classes were an enjoyable break from the academics. But I think my tort law class was the most educational.

  7. I saw my schooling years very similar to your criminal sentence analogy. I am one that loves to move around the confinement of a desk inside a boxed room was the worst for me. I don’t like the system and I’ve had my own share of fantasies about a world where students go to a school that matches their persona. No desks, no useless facts, but more practical knowledge, real life engagement, apprenticeship programs, team building and project management at a K-12 level. Art, music, physical education and science were always my favorite. I dream for change in the system.. I don’t want to have a child raised up in this one.

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