So That's Why We Study Digestion?

Imagine a middle school girl: she is a strong student enrolled in a fine independent school. She works hard to perform to the highest standard; she is eager to please and to learn. At the moment, she is overwhelmed studying for a unit test on the digestive system. Her teacher has provided a clearly outlined study guide that requires her to memorize a broad array of facts--from the length of the esophagus to the names of the enzymes working within the digestive process. Her learning task, from her perspective, is clear: memorize all the terms and definitions (neatly transcribed on index cards) and earn an A. She labors hard and asks her mother to quiz her. Her mother obliges but is concerned by her daughters stress level, which pops up a notch each time her recall fails. What if she can’t remember everything? She seems to have stopped learning and is focused on her mounting concern for what will happen if she can’t memorize everything. 

She knows that to earn an A she needs to memorize these terms and her approach is highly aligned with that goal. She is compliant, but is she curious, is she comprehending, is she learning deeply? Does she actually understand digestion? In a fit of frustration her mother leads her into the kitchen. She pulls out a piece of bread, takes a bite and begins to chew. She hands her daughter a piece and asks her to do the same. Then she asks her: “Tell me what’s happening--what’s happening to the bread? What’s happening in your body? What’s going to happen next? Why are these things happening?” Her daughter is flummoxed but with some encouragement (and the relaxing pleasure of chewing homemade bread) she begins to respond. Before long, she is connecting the terms and concepts outlined on her index cards to what she is experiencing. Suddenly, she is asking her own questions and developing hypotheses. She asks, with eyes lit up, “Why don’t we learn it this way? This is so cool!”

Why don’t children learn this way? They do, if learn with them, or simply get out of their way. It is natural and exciting to learn when we understand why we are learning; when we are exposed to phenomena or experiences that stimulate our natural desire to ask “why” or to simply wonder. Whether by desire, sheer curiosity, or in order to make sense of what is not apparently sensible, children and adults are naturally inclined to learn. Yetresearch demonstrates that children become less engaged and/or more passively compliant with school in every passing year. 

We see this today with young adults in the workplace who struggle to perform but are deeply challenged when the road map to the solution or the outcome isn’t clearly outlined for them

As a parent and as a practitioner in schools and in organizations, I am reminded that it is our job to make learning relevant, meaningful and actionable to children. And learning how to learn, or understanding how we know what we know (metacognition), is an equally important element of what we do as educators. There are many schools and alternative programs that approach learning in this way--helping children “connect the dots” in ways that are exciting and relevant. So not only do we teach in order to build knowledge and develop skills, we also teach to foster a love, willingness and facility for learning, and is this not an equal if not greater goal?