The other day I arrived home, went upstairs, and my 11-year-old daughter came up to me, excited to share an idea. “Dad, I have an idea for a summer family activity. How about if each of us choose a science experiment over the next two months and then we have our own little family science fair where we report our findings and present to each other?” I was delighted with the idea. It sounds like great fun. Yet, I was also excited because of what this indicates about how my daughter thinks of science and experiments. My daughter sees science experiments as something that you do for fun and to learn, not to earn a grade or meet a requirement. And she sees learning as something that is part of family and life, not just school. My eight-year-old son is the same way. I just asked him about it and he explained, “I do science for fun and I learn along the way.” This is very much what I’ve talked about in the past when I’ve argued for creating learning communities that have a true culture of learning instead of a culture of earning.
I’m not claiming that we’ve done things perfectly or that my children do not experience moments where “school” feels like a chore. They do. Yet, what I love about their schooling experience is that it really is much more about learning. They talk about what they are learning with interest. It bleeds over into their imaginative play, our informal family conversations, their personal goals, and their bedtime musings. They go to the library weekly and always have a stack of books nearby that they are reading, not because it is required for some class. They read because they like to read.
I’m sure that they will have their share of learning challenges and gaps in their education…that they already do. We all have both. At the same time, what is more important to me is that they develop a growing love of learning, that they discover how to fuel their learning by tapping into an ever-growing curiosity, their passions, and their convictions. For this to happen, we are wise to resist a school experience that is more focused upon testing, compliance, and earning the grade. High stakes tests, letter grades and compliance and relates issues are not designed to cultivate a love of learning, and I’ve yet to see a single study that shows how any of these three help people cultivate a lifelong learning mindset.
Yet, schools can’t do this on their own. The best place to start nurturing this is in the home. It starts with models by parents, the types of activities that the family shares with one another. It grows out of what and how they have conversations with one another, and the values that are evident in those conversations.
While my wife and I homeschool our children, I am not convinced that is necessarily the reason why this culture of learning exists in our home. I’ve seen homeschool families that treat homeschooling pretty much like it was a school. They use textbooks, worksheets, grades, and try to replicate the very practices in school that risk drawing students away from a mindset of curiosity and a love of learning. At the same time, I’ve seen schools that do an excellent job minimizing the role of these common trappings, instead opting for cultures that value experimentation, curiosity, deep practice, inquiry, deep and deliberate practice, mastery, and engaging learning discourse.
Whether students are homeschooling or in traditional schools, we have plenty of research to show that the culture and community in the home impacts how young people think about learning. In the ideal world, the message and mindset at home aligns with the messages and mindset at school, communicating a shared vision for deep and meaningful learning, not simple compliance and checking off that you met the requirements.
As such, while I don’t claim to have it all figured out, here are ten ways for families to take the lead in nurturing young people who are curious and love learning:
- Love book together. Talk about what you are reading. Have scheduled times where the family goes to the library, selects books and shares what they are reading with one another. Make reading something fun, not forced. Make it an embedded part of who you are as a family.
- Be curious together. This might involve checking out the cool wildlife in the backyard, working through some random question that comes to mind, doing experiments together (Can you really make an egg stand on its end on that special day each year?), or countless other activities. The point is that we are curious about life and the world, and it shows up in our conversations and activities.
- Model a love of learning. Let your curiosity and love of learning impact what you do. Talk about it with your kids. Let them see your excitement. Life is more than work and vacations. Live, love and learn together.
- Be proud geeks. Talk about how you are proud to be different, a bit geeky or nerdy, and celebrate the other people like that in the world. I’m proud to wear my new t-shirt that says, “Dinosaurs didn’t read. Now they’re extinct” or the other one that says, “I like to party and by party I mean read books.”
- Don’t celebrate test scores, grades and honor roll as much as curiosity, deep practice, a love of learning, and real world application of their learning. I don’t mean ignore these elements but making grades and rankings central is a Trojan horse that allows the culture of earning army to invade your family and children’s lives.
- Celebrate growth mindsets over fixed mindsets. Don’t talk about how smart your kids are, how they are so much more intelligent than others and the like. Celebrate their hard work, persistence, curiosity, and their growing capacity for deep and deliberate practice. If you have not already read it, check out Dweck’s book Mindset. Consider her suggestions for how and why to nurture a growth mindset instead of a fixed one.
- Have interesting experiences together. Experience life and the world together. Talk about it. Enjoy the incredible gift of life and the world in which we live.
- Talk about the how of learning. Too many see learning as magical or mysterious. There is a wealth of great research about our wonderfully designed brains, how they work, and how we best learn. Explore and discuss these together as tools to even better enjoy a life of learning. Use the vocabulary in this literature within your family.
- Avoid the temptation to make performance in school the ultimate goal. Yes, I am suggesting that we don’t make learning just about school. Talk about the difference between learning, schooling and education. Recognize that schooling is just a small part of the other two, that life is full of learning and we never graduate from our education. As such, beware of the temptation to make it all about doing well in school so that you are ready for the next school. Yes, those are realities and we can help our children prepare for them, but don’t let them take center stage. Let the larger vision for learning remain the more important focus.
- Similarly, don’t let the compliance and grading elements of schooling destroy the joy of some of the great things that do happen in school. School doesn’t have a monopoly on experiments; a love of reading; having great conversations about history, science, philosophy, theology; or anything else. Redeem these as independently valuable and worthy of time outside of school, as fun for individuals in the family or the entire family.
Again, I certainly do not claim to have this figured out perfectly, but these are the sorts of activities that can help us at least strive for helping our children value learning more than earning and compliance.