Transforming Reluctant Students into Lifelong Learners
During my sojourn in central Europe (Slovakia), I heard a saying that rang true with my experience:
"The Third World is learning to read.
The Western World has forgotten how to read.
In the East, they read."
It's no wonder that when I connected back in the States with a Slovak college student I'd known from my tiny village, he was now teaching doctoral students at Georgia Tech, funded by the US Government to do research on lasers. Half of the doctoral students at Tech are from other countries (2001 stats). I'm personally delighted with the intellectual ferment that the international students provide. Yet, I shudder to think of the long-term consequences to a country that's by and large lost it's love for seeking wisdom and knowledge.
Let's think beyond helping students complete assignments and get better grades. Some of your "A" students may be merely conforming to the school system and won't touch a book or visit a library after graduation. How can we inspire students to habitually pursue wisdom and knowledge?
My students prefer drinking from a rushing stream than a stagnant pool. If I merely rehash old stuff, they instinctively sense the staleness and respond accordingly. People in Central and Eastern Europe prioritized reading. When people waited in lines, they pulled out books or newspapers. In the USA, people rarely keep priority reading materials handy to redeem spare moments. If they read at all in the grocery line or at soccer practice, it's about the most recent UFO sighting from a tabloid or star gossip from the pop culture magazines -- mental junk food..
A missionary tried to set up an appointment with a man in Eastern Europe. He suggested a time, but the man replied, "I’m sorry. That’s during my reading time." "My what?!!" most American’s would react. Apparently this man realized the importance of setting aside and jealously guarding his time for acquiring wisdom. When do you study? We tend to give reading our left-over time. That's a start, but let's work toward priority time.
Set Personal Reading Goals
A large percentage of people never read an entire book following high school. Of those who do read, many never venture beyond romance novels. Psychologist James Dobson’s father used to vary his reading between different disciplines - Medicine now, Psychology next, etc. Start with your personal interests and needs, but occasionally force yourself outside these areas to broaden yourself. Do you need to understand money management? Digest money management experts from their books or tapes. Is your marriage mediocre, or worse? Desperately seek wisdom from the experts. As you grow in wisdom, you will find many fresh illustrations of how wisdom changes lives and as they watch you burn with enthusiasm, some of them will catch fire as well.
Avoid Time Wasters
A part of my Slovak friends' exuberance for reading came from their lack of options - Communist era TV was pretty boring. One college student in Bratislava told me that as a child, her total TV viewing consisted of a thirty-minute Slovak fairy tale on Sunday mornings. It's no wonder that she had the time to acquire fluent English, complete a medical degree and eventually practice medicine in California.
Bill Gates knew that he couldn't keep ahead of the computer industry while frittering away his time watching TV. To make sure he didn't get sucked in, he didn't even own a TV until he was 29. Even then, it was just a monitor (not able to pick up TV stations) and a VCR given to him by a long-distance girlfriend so that they could watch the same movies and talk about them by phone afterwards. Knowing how enticing TV is, he couldn't risk wasting the time. He disconnected his car radio so that he could think while driving.
Afraid of going through withdrawal? Begin with sacrificing a thirty-minute show per day. If withdrawal becomes severe, consider applying a four-way lug wrench to your set, or keep a broken remote control in your pocket and punch the station button each time you flip a page.
Redeem Stray Moments
Finding myself stranded at Wal-Mart with a seasoned shopper, I pulled out paper and pen, scanned the magazine rack, and mined about eight superb illustrations from an article about basketball super coach Pat Riley. (Then, being the cheapskate that I am, I placed the magazine back on the rack and never bought it.)
Never Leave Home Without a Book
While running taxi service for my boys, I often salvage 10 minutes of reading while waiting for soccer practice to end. Borrow cassette tapes or book summary CD's from your library. During 30 minute round trip commutes to work or school every day, you could gain a fair grasp of another language, sharpen your teaching skills, or get expert advice on a hobby. It beats listening to that talk show host who pulls out a gem of wisdom on the average of once a month.
Seek Out Wise Counsel
Reading's not the only way to acquire wisdom. In fact, because of disabilities and other factors, some may never excel at reading. We can learn tons by simply asking questions of wise people. One of my early mentors, Dan Dehaan, married into a sizeable estate and knew he needed wisdom on money management and investing. He promptly set up weekly lunches with successful businessmen to soak up their wisdom. He also loved to find out when wise individuals had a layover at the Atlanta airport, or needed a ride somewhere, so that he could ask questions and grow in wisdom. No wonder students loved his teaching and over 1000 young people turned out to hear him on Tuesday nights. His students sometimes felt like they were drinking from a fire hose.
Challenge Them With Deeper Thoughts
Too often, we assume that our students are mental midgets who secretly long for a Crayola whenever we present a deep thought. True, some youth devote their entire mental faculty to choosing a new Spring outfit and their greatest contribution to civilization may be to inspire blonde jokes. Yet I sense that students are generally much brighter than we assume. Even those who flunk your class may run straight home after school to work on rebuilding their complex car engine. Others lay awake nights, obsessively dreaming up ways to get their parents back together. Emotional Intelligence lets us know that those who are dysfunctional at Math or reading may be relational geniuses. Most students enjoy thinking deeply within their areas of strength, yet many starve for solid food. We keep dishing out the mental soft drinks and donut holes, terrified at the possibility of boring a shallow thinker with a challenging thought.
Bill Gates read the entire World Book Encyclopedia by the age of nine. As an eighth grader, he had such a thirst for programming computers (personal computers weren’t around at the time) that he hacked his way into a company computer system to get free programming time. Some of our students are thinking on the level of Gates and would like to be challenged further. Offer challenging reading or a report on an excellent documentary for extra credit. Let interested students evaluate your teaching or help with your research and teaching.
Always Give Direction to Those Who Want More
Say things like, "In today's lesson I’ve just skimmed the surface. If you want to dig deeper, you’ve just got to read Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. It's a classic on relationships. I've got a couple of copies if you want to borrow it."
Tell Them the Consequences of Your Foolish Decisions
Failure is a wonderful teacher, but it will be less costly for your students if they can learn from your failures rather than solely their own.
Show Them What You're Learning
Keep informative, riveting books and magazines in view around our houses and classrooms. While teaching, actually hold up books or tapes that you're enthusiastic about. If we talk more exuberantly about the life-changing wisdom we're acquiring than the movies we're watching, our children and students may follow. The pursuit of wisdom is better caught than taught. With stiff competition from increasingly realistic video-games and movies, if we expect them to buck the tide and become wisdom-seekers we'll have to model a fanaticism about wisdom-seeking that excels their fanaticism for games and movies . If we want them to bleed, we've got to hemorrhage.
Let Students Hold You Accountable
Yesterday a friend recommended a book on character education that I need to read. I responded, "Let's find some others who need to read it and discuss a chapter a week via e-mail." Why? Because I need accountability. Because I digest more when I hear others share their take on a chapter and must verbalize my own insights. When students hold us accountable, they realize that we're all in this together. Just alcoholics need Alcoholics Anonymous, so we need Entertainment Anonymous. let's admit that shallow entertainment often holds us helplessly in its grasp. We need the accountability of others to resist.
Learn From Your Students
Treat them as respected resources into youth culture and their particular areas of interest. Teaching shouldn't be a one-way street.
Encourage Good Questions
"Wise" does not equal "know-it-all." If a student stumps you with a good question, respond, "frankly, no one’s ever asked me that question before. And very frankly, I have no clue as to how to respond. Can anyone else here help me answer this insightful question? Let's take a few days to research this out and see who can come up with an answer." If you were the student, how would this approach make you feel? How would it inspire further questions from other students? How does this response make the student feel? How will this approach encourage further interaction?
Enlist Students as Researchers
A ninth-grader helped me research the topic of "dating." Several talented middle-schoolers helped me research a book on music during their summer break. We would drive to one of Emory University's libraries and we'd research our hearts out. Then, I’d buy them submarine sandwiches and we'd throw Frisbees on the campus lawn. The ninth-grader recently earned his Doctorate. One of the middle schoolers completed an engineering degree at Georgia Tech and another his medical degree at Vanderbilt. It encourages me to know that I may have had a part in their motivation to pursue wisdom and knowledge.
Do you struggle with feelings that your students are uninspirable? Check out the movie "Stand and Deliver," not for your youth, but for yourself. Based on a true story, a teacher inspires inner city kids to study advanced math, even motivating them to stay after school for more. Some are awarded scholarships to prestigious universities. If he could motivate kids to study calculus during their free time, surely I can motivate some of mine to have a heart for wisdom.
Updated February, 2004. Copyright by Legacy Educational Resources. All rights reserved.