Learning—The Process that Counts
I'm sure every parent has been asked this question by their children more than once. It usually comes up during homework, or maybe after receiving a poor grade on a test or assignment. Our children look to us to answer satisfactorily "Why do we have to learn this?" They might even follow it up with such challenges as "How has memorizing dates in history ever helped you in life?" or "When am I ever going to use geometry outside of school?"
As much as you might be tempted to say, "It will be on your next test," or, "I had to learn it when I was in school, and now it's your turn," there is a better answer that can help you to wholeheartedly support schoolwork that may seem irrelevant to your children.
It is that the act of learning is as important as the subject material you are covering—especially in the elementary and middle school years. The most important lessons a teacher gives are those underlying the subject matter: how to think, how to resolve problems, how to use your knowledge.
While students may believe that they must write a five-page report on the ancient Egyptians because this is information their teacher has decided that they will need to know always, it is actually the process of doing the report that makes it educationally valid. Through such an assignment a student learns how to conduct research and how to gather information and evaluate which facts and concepts are important and which are insignificant. The writing process teaches them how to organize their materials and how to communicate a specific message to the reader.
The historical data they learn about the ancient Egyptians is added to the storehouse of knowledge in their minds, and remains there long after specific names and dates are forgotten. Understanding how ancient civilizations lived and the many things they actually had in common with us today is a resource that will be used to make decisions and evaluate situations throughout their lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, we draw upon the resources of our accumulated knowledge each and every day.
The early school years are a time when children's brains are developing. In Syosset, we begin the study of world languages in kindergarten, and each year the children have a new language to experience. They start with Russian, study Chinese in first grade, move to French, Spanish, and Italian in second through fourth grade, and then complete elementary school with the study of Latin.
This program is an excellent example of how the learning process transcends the importance of the subject matter. Our main objective is to exercise the brain during this crucial time of development. I have been fascinated by research being conducted at Harvard and MIT that have actually shown that the study of more than one language in young children results in measurable increases in brain development, with the use of MRI technology.
So when your children complain about subjects that don't hold their interest, you can try telling them that it is the process involved in learning the material that will make them smarter and give them a greater resource of knowledge from which to draw. Unfortunately, they still might not like that subject, but at least you've given them an answer.#
Dr. Hankin is superintendent of Syosset Central School District. Randi Sachs is Public Information Officer of Syosset Schools.