I love the curiosity of younger kids. I love toddlers who ask “But why?” I don’t like that by the time they arrive at high school many have lost their enthusiasm.
In Year 7 Geography we start with ‘What is Geography?’ I have some beautifully enthusiastic boys who are keen to contribute, one in particular is quite earnest. The other 20-something students already view school as a chore. Which is sad.
What is also sad that their answer to ‘What is Geography?’ just focuses on knowledge and understanding. I spent several minutes this week saying, “but why?”, to encourage further thought and development. It was painful, but eventually we arrived at:
- To care for the world
- To solve problems like global warming and floods
- To prepare for the future
The next day I revisited the question and it still took a while to arrive at the why. When did children stop thinking about the why?
In Year 11 Society and Culture this week we discussed the differences between interactions they have at home with their family, with their friends, with people they know at school who aren’t close friends, with people in their sporting clubs and how they may be influenced by media and government. Again, I had to be persistent with asking, “But why?” Thankfully this is a class of thoughtful students. I can almost see the cogs turning in their heads as I probe for more and more and their fascination increases as they learn more and more. This is a class that will bring me joy.
Even in HSC Business Studies I was asking, “But why?” Why do businesses need to monitor, control and look for continual improvement? Why do they want to offer after-sales service? Why are stores laid out certain ways? I’m tired of students thinking that all they need to do is make comprehensive textbook summary notes to achieve well in the HSC when synthesis and problem-solving are also important. A couple of my more diligent students were reluctant to think about the type of customer service a bicycle shop could offer their customers at the point of sale and beyond, and thus wrote a single sentence response so they could tick the mental box that the task was complete. When I had the discussion with them to push their thinking further they came up with some brilliant suggestions. The trick now is to transfer that thinking into a pen and paper exam.
But why is it such a struggle to push students beyond a memorising mindset?
Because, like much of our behaviour, the willingness to be open and to question weakens with disuse. Behaviour is habitual and difficult to change and unfortunately our behaviour is all too often shaped by the nagative reactions of other people. I truly think that from the time we are born, most others patience for our questions decreases over time. I spend all day with those toddlers – preschoolers who are asking why almost nonstop. And sometimes it tests my patience. I run out of answers or I don’t know how to shape an appropriate answer. But I try to answer as many questions, and continue to support their right to question as much as I possibly can. Unfortunately, working in this field I see just how many other adults find it a struggle to do this, can barely get past the first why before brushing off the question. Over time children learn not to bother asking questions because their experience tells them they won’t gain anything. So by the time their teachers are them questions, challenging them to answer ‘but why’ many of them don’t see the value in it. After all, if no one is willing I answer your questions, why should you be willing to answer theirs? This is one of the areas where it is essential that continuity between early childhood education and all further education be maintained. The support and encouragement for why and exploration HAS to start from the earliest age possible and has to be a common thread throught all education. But there is a huge disconnect between the learning/education philosophies of early childhood (not to mention frequent failure to truly implement them in the industry) and those of primary education. So many of us are trying to bridge that disconnect but it’s not easy when so many teachers (encompassing early childhood and beyond) are terrified of exploration and discovery. When the 1 year old in my room repeatedly stands on her chair at lunch time even as I’ve asked her to sit on her bottom bc it’s not safe, she is asking me ‘WHY’. Her lack of verbalisation doesn’t negate the obvious question! And I can continually sit her back down or I can let her keep trying to find out why. The balance between these options is slightly harder in my job because I also have a duty to her safety. But everytime I consider simply sitting her back down I have to remind myself that in doing so she may never learn the answer to her own question, she’ll simply learn to sit down for no other reason than it became fruitless to keep trying to stand. So much of how we respond to children in their early years stifles their desire to learn and explore and discover. It feels fruitless to them because of how often we deny it to them. So when you ask why is it so hard to push high school students beyond a memorising mindset? I think the answer is because from an early age we make it very clear to children that our answer is the right answer and we’re not all that interested in theirs, especially if it requires us to relinquish control over them to let them explore and learn on their own.
I feel ya! I LOVE the fact that my year sevens just don’t stop. Their questions are proof they’re thinking, and learning, and being. Like you, I’m constantly asking them ‘but why’ when they talk, and already – only four weeks into the year – they are doing it back.
The mindset is a legacy of education yesteryear I fear. How we change it I just don’t know.