Commentary: How to raise a lifelong learner, rather than a child who simply aces exams

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With the imminent release of the PSLE results, a researcher discusses how preparing children for life—not just exams—requires us to relearn learning by thinking long-term and outside the (academic) box.

Commentary: How to raise a lifelong learner, rather than a child who simply aces exams

Parents can be a part of helping their children be curious about learning. (Photo: iStock/simon2579)

SINGAPORE: It is common for parents and teachers to reward a child’s academic achievement with, say, a gift or treat. Praising a child and rewarding him or her for doing well in an exam comes from genuine affection and this can serve as a powerful motivation for children to want to do better.

But there is also a flip side to this argument – when learning is narrowly associated with external motivations and academic gains, children can become overly instrumental in how they perceive learning. They may fail to appreciate that learning in itself holds intrinsic value and pleasure.

The other issue has to do with seeing learning as cramming just before exams. Doing so risks surface understanding and short-term retention. Marathon runners do not expect to run a marathon with only a few days of training; likewise, learners should not expect results over a short period.

Williams College researcher Nate Kornell found that students retained information better through spaced practice – reviewing information at specific intervals, initially frequently, eventually less so once familiar – as opposed to cramming before exams.

Learning scientists also recommend interleaving – mixing subjects (say, science and language), topics and different practice strategies. This enables children to recognise similarities and differences and apply what they learned in different contexts.

To illustrate, a child involved in baking at home draws on language and comprehension skills in understanding the recipe, mathematics when measuring ingredients, and science when mixing and baking ingredients at the right temperature. Additionally, this engages a child’s emotions, physical senses and planning skills, all of which create multiple pathways by which learning is deepened.

Ideally, learning should be about self-improvement, personal growth, or enjoyment. But this requires a shift in the way we think.

For deep and long-term understanding, children need time to interact with concepts, find out how they relate to what they already know and apply concepts to the real world.

EVERYONE PLAYS A PART

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has over the years tried to reshape our thinking about and relationship with learning.

The removal of mid-year examinations at some levels, the revised PSLE scoring system, implementation of Blended Learning with Home-Based Learning days scheduled regularly, and the refreshed Character and Citizenship Education curriculum are some examples of efforts made towards encouraging a reduced emphasis on academic performance and developing self-directed learners who find joy in learning.

But parents and teachers are critical in making this a reality.

In a 2013 study of more than 1,600 Secondary 3 students on the impact of parental involvement in learning, ex-National Institute of Education (NIE) researcher Luo Wenshu and her team found that when Singaporean parents were involved in their children’s learning by, for instance, discussing their homework and encouraging them to participate in co-curricular activities, children tended to exhibit more positive learning attitudes and outcomes.

That is, when parents engaged their children by talking and guiding – but not forcing or telling them what to do – children showed self-regulation in learning, low anxiety, high self-concept, persistence and performance.

In the same study, children with parents who were controlling and coercive – for instance, not allowing their children to make their own plans or depart from parental views – exhibited a maladaptive learning profile. They showed high anxiety, low task persistence and low academic performance.

NIE Associate Professor Nie Youyan and her colleagues also found that in Singapore classrooms where teachers emphasised learning, task mastery and self-improvement, students showed greater interest, enjoyment and self-efficacy.

A teacher interacting with students at an MOE Kindergarten. (Photo: Ministry of Education)

Conversely, data revealed that classrooms organised around mutual competition and tests – or external motivations – were negatively correlated with academic achievements.

For instance, when teachers talk about how it is important to persevere with learning multiplication tables so that students can count faster in all aspects of their lives, rather than saying they need it for their exams or to outcount their friends, students had more positive learning experiences and achievement.  

Besides parents and teachers, the larger society also forms the wider ecology around learning. Offhand remarks we make about learning to peers or a relative’s child – such as, “Wow, it’s great that you’re so interested in reading”, as opposed to, “exam is over, no need to read anymore” – implicitly contributes to the culture, or shared values and beliefs, about learning.

HOW TO RELEARN LEARNING

We need to believe that children have a sense of agency: They can direct their own learning. Before COVID-19 struck, few would believe that students would one day study online en masse, record themselves and upload video or voice clips for school assignments.

Given this start in self-directed learning, we can now do more to encourage metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking.

For instance, in reviewing homework, instead of explaining how to rectify a mistake, enhance metacognition by asking the child to articulate the steps leading up to the mistake and what help they think they need to get it right.

Possible questions include: What did you do to get here? How do you know you are stuck? What can you do next? What can you do in future if faced with similar issues? These questions prompt children to be more conscious about their own thinking. They also give insights into children’s thinking and learning.

Rather than offering solutions right away, we can help by providing space or support for children to seek solutions themselves and be patient about the learning process. When children ask for help – be it in opening a jammed cupboard door or clarifying an unfamiliar word – instead of giving them solutions, we can first ask them to suggest solutions.

Next, we can provide some clues and encourage them to solve the problem themselves.

GOING BEYOND SCHOOL WORK AND EXAMS

The final piece in the learning puzzle is that we mistakenly think that learning is just about school work. Parents may think children spending time with their toys or friends at the playground is not useful for learning.

But there is learning going on there too. They are creatively imagining new games, exploring how to make new friends or resisting peer pressure, watching out so they do not hurt themselves or others and picking themselves up when they fall, amongst other lessons.

These are dispositions and skills that will serve them well in unfamiliar circumstances and in the long run.

Recently, someone in my class admitted her reluctance at letting her child learn knitting because it will not help her child academically. A lively discussion ensued with peers debating how both intellectual and personal growth can be derived from knitting.

Knitting, someone said, requires perseverance and creativity. Indeed, this underscores the importance of adult support and open-mindedness to children’s pursuit of their interests in shaping their learning.

Educational philosopher John Dewey wrote: “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results”.

Learning, Dewey argues, is experiential in nature and one way we can do better is to vary the learning experiences of children beyond pen and paper practice. This would require creativity and a commitment to relearning learning on our parts.

Only in relearning our relationship with learning can we help ourselves and our children be prepared for life at large.

Heng Tang Tang is an Assistant Professor in the Policy, Curriculum, and Leadership academic group in the National Institute of Education.

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