Ask Reading Kingdom: How do people learn best?

In answering this question, it’s important to consider a distinction that has been recognized for eons. Plato, for example, discussed it in his writings. It is the distinction between self-directed learning and imposed learning. Despite its long history and the critical role it plays in learning, it is often ignored.

Self-directed learning, by definition, is highly motivated learning. The individual has a passion –whether in sports, music, writing, or some other realm—and he or she will strive for mastery and success. It’s necessary to have a good mentor and the right environment, but the learning is generally highly successful. Internal motivation is phenomenally powerful.

The situation with imposed learning is dramatically different. There, the individual may be pressured and expected to learn material that can be far from appealing. Given the option, the learner might simply opt out. But in many cases, such as school, that choice is not available.

The difference was captured in a conversation I had with a high school student who was doing almost none of her assigned academic work but was devoting hours a day to sports training. I asked her why she was willing to do anything and everything her coach requested, but was totally unwilling to do what any of the other teachers requested. Her reply was simple, “I love running and I will do anything needed to become good at it.”

So the question for schools is not simply, “How do people learn best?” but rather “How can we get students to learn when they may not be interested in what we are offering?”

In recent years, there has been a growing feeling that the high tech world is the answer to overcoming the obstacles to imposed learning. The devices have been thought to be so appealing that they will automatically generate the motivation needed for learning. However, as the data comes in, this is proving not to be the case and the children are not learning more effectively. This finding should not be surprising. Basically the content being used is largely the same as the same poorly constructed materials that marked the pre-computer age.

This does not mean that imposed learning cannot be effective. However, for that to happen, there have to be major changes in the content and design of curricula. For example, some years ago, I was in contact with a curriculum design group that was committed to transforming the curriculum. One challenge that they took on was to create ways of making Shakespeare meaningful to high school students who came from the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Then, as now, there was a widespread feeling that Shakespeare was irrelevant to these students and accordingly, his works should be dropped from the curriculum.

The group thought otherwise. For Hamlet, they did the following. They did not mention the book. Instead, they had the teacher start the “lesson” by discussing the following hypothetical situation: “Imagine that you had gone off traveling for an extended period. Upon your return home, you find out that your father has died. Then you find out that he did not simply die—but he was murdered and he was murdered by his brother—your uncle. To make matters even worse, your uncle then marries your mother. How do you think you would feel in that situation and what do think you might do?” This short, but powerful, introduction captured the students’ emotions and their reactions were intense. After discussing their possible responses, they were more than willing to “see what Hamlet did when faced with a comparable situation.”

It is possible to have imposed learning be effective and motivating. But that requires significant changes across the board—in every aspect and in all grades of the curriculum. Unfortunately, barely any time, effort or money is going into that effort. If and when there is a major initiative into this realm, the effects could be transformative.

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