It’s hard to teach the love of learning
by Daniel Yap
I GOT a knock on my door last week and a man with a survey asked me what I thought about my kids’ primary school education: What was the most important outcome of primary school to me? High PSLE score? Moral education? CCAs?
The most important outcome of their primary schooling to me, I answered, was that they learn to love learning.
One of my kids just took his first steps into Primary One this week, and as I look around at the world my son is growing up in, I realise that I’ll be fighting a battle to help him learn to love learning.
You see, you cannot love a thing just for the rewards you will get out of it. That isn’t love. If he loves learning, he has to love it for itself – learning because it is beautiful, because it is the way we were made to live and grow, and because much of learning is also wisdom.
Now it isn’t wrong to reward good academic performance, but even as we do, the reward of academic performance needs to be separated from the reward of learning.
I took a shortcut in this journey this morning on the way to school with my son. “I’ll let you play more games if you do well in school,” I started to say, before catching myself. It was an easy bribe (or is it an offer?) to make if I want to condition him to behave a certain way when it comes to school, but does it help him learn to love learning?
Or perhaps if I threaten him, like the faded words go, that he will be a toilet cleaner if he fails school? I risk teaching him that school, learning and study is all about the life it can buy you once you’re done with it. I teach him that he should mug for an exam and then dump that useless garbage out of his brain once he clinches the ‘A.’ That is, unless I separate the consequence of study from its value.
That will require a longer talk than our short commute to school.
It’s like NUS law students getting assessed on pro bono work. If students get assessed on it and rewarded with credits (rather than just trained for it), what starts out as a great way to get them involved in something for a good cause can slowly turn into a means to an end that doesn’t have to do with ‘pro bono’ anymore.
Ditto with the GIC’s laudable move to give very generous cash rewards to student volunteers. Today, students from lower income families probably still volunteer because they believe in the intrinsic value of what they do, but is anybody watching out for when this becomes about the money and not the cause? The risk is higher when you get to pocket $5,000 for 25 hours of “volunteer work” – that’s an attractive financial proposition to any student at any income level.
Attractive financial propositions also abound for the academic performers. Universities are falling over themselves to announce how much money their graduates make compared to other universities. Parents tout the importance of getting that private degree – it will net you a better-paying job. Students (most of whom are not even desperately trying to pay off debt) pick courses of study because of the future pay grades rather than because of interest.
And then, years later, we say “sure, I’d love to go for courses, but where got time?” That’s not what someone who loves learning would say. Someone who loves learning will make time. Someone who loves learning has already made time.
And that’s what I’ve got to watch out for if I want my kids to love learning. Sure, I can and should reward them for a job well done, because that is fair, but to those who do not or cannot (because someone must fall at the end of the bell curve) the greatest thing I hope they can get out of school is to learn to love learning.
It’s time for a mindful, long conversation about learning.
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