Family Magazine

Helping Children Learn Beyond the Classroom

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.


Our education system is failing. Not just from a lack of funding and focus, but from a lack of imagination. People in general, but children specifically, need to be interested in the things they are learning if they have any hope of retaining it for future use. Playing games, helping to cook meals, reading fiction and comics, sports participation, music, these should all be seen as practice for real life problem solving. What is playing house but role-playing how to coexist with people outside of your family? What do sports teach us if not to put the needs of the team ahead of your own, or how to practice really hard to get good at something? Learning the rules in sports is not so different from learning what the laws are in our society, and more importantly, why we have them. Music is for some the first, or only, second language they learn, and it is a language. These associations are crucial to make for kids, it provides them with a creative way to understand a world that is so much bigger and more complicated than they can imagine. And what are we doing if we can’t help them to understand that?

When I think of our public education system the first word that comes to mind is antiquated. Sure, we still need the three R’s, reading, writing, and arithmetic (which I never got since one starts with W and another with A, but whatever) and we have incorporated computer learning and various other technologies as they become a part of everyday life, however, what has not changed, and has in fact become stagnant, is the ways in which we try to get our children to learn and retain these things. Our current go-to teaching method of repeat and regurgitate, with no basis for understanding these concepts in real life situations, is doing a disservice to students. In this world full of stimuli, where our most valued characteristics are the ability to multi-task and the drive to accomplish goals, it would seem like common sense that our techniques of teaching would evolve to include the tools to attain these priceless abilities. Yet students still come home at night with lists of words and facts to memorize, and math problems to solve with no context of how it could ever be useful to them in the real world, which results in the student remembering the answers only long enough to write them down on a test paper for their teachers before promptly forgetting most of the info. I have to believe there is a better way.

So, what would I do to improve how our children are taught? I’m glad you asked. Over the last 8 years of my life I have had the distinct pleasure of helping to raise two wonderful children who are now 9 and 7. Being their nanny, once they entered elementary school it became a large part of my job to help them with their homework. I sometimes tease the older one that she is clearly an alien because not only is she truly brilliant for her age, she LOVES school. Getting her to do homework is like getting most kids to eat ice cream, no other incentive needed. Her little brother on the other hand is much more typical, not only is getting him to sit down and do his homework like trying to catch a bull with a piece of string, getting him to stay still and keep on working is like keeping that bull in a pasture with no fences. So after a week or two of my threatening, pleading, and yes, bribing him, did absolutely nothing to motivate him, I decided on a different tactic.

It was reading he was struggling with at the time. After my six millionth attempt to get him to read me a sentence about the cat in the tree on his homework page, during which he would not stop asking when the soccer game on T.V. was starting, his sister came over and reminded me of the first time we went to the mall after she learned how to read. We had been going to this mall together for years and just around the corner from our favorite play area was a Cold Stone Creamery. The kids couldn’t see enough of it to realize what people were buying inside, only the sign was visible. One day when we first went to this mall the older sister asked me what that store was and in an attempt to head off the impending cries for ice cream should its true nature be revealed, I told her it was a shoe store and never heard another word about it. That is, until one day after she had mastered the art of reading. We went to our little play area again and as we were about to leave she looked up at the sign and slowly but clearly said, “C…O…Cold Stone Creamery… Ice cream!? You told me this was a SHOE store!” And I told her, “I knew we should never have taught you to read!” To which she replied that I owed her a couple years worth of ice cream for my treachery.

As she reminded me of this story, I realized where we were going wrong with her brother. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to read, he just didn’t care about cats, how they got into the tree, or if they would ever come back down. He cared about soccer. So I wrote a short and easy story about a boy who wanted to play soccer but couldn’t be on the team until he could read the rules of the soccer team. It was only a few sentences long and after I read him the first two sentences he stopped wandering about the room and came to sit with me. He asked what happened next and I told him if he really wanted to know then he was going to have to read it with me. So we sat together until he was able to read the whole paragraph. After that story, it still wasn’t easy to get him to read his actual homework assignments, but he didn’t hate it as much as he had before and once he discovered that there were interesting things to read, it eventually became easier to get him to read the more mundane things with the promise of more interesting material to follow. The lesson is that if you want a stubborn irascible person (aka most children) to do something they don’t want to, then you have to first put it into a context they find interesting.

The same technique has worked with his older sister. Though she has an innate passion for school, when multiplication and division were introduced in second grade math I saw her throw the first true tantrum she’d had since she was a toddler. There was full-on screaming and crocodile tears with a barely understandable and shrill mantra of “Why do I need to learn this?! I will never, EVER use this in my real life!” While choking back the laughter as I remember screaming this very thing as a child, I calmed her down and told her we would come back to it after we made dinner. We were having pigs in a blanket that night which was fortuitous because this simple dish uses both multiplication and division if everything is going to come out as an equal split between the three of us. We make them by cutting up turkey hot dogs and wrapping them in Pillsbury Crescent roll dough. Every time I make them I use 4 whole hot dogs and a whole package of crescent rolls which makes 8 full-sized rolls. After all is said and done we end up with 12 pigs in blankets and 4 mini rolls (the kids split the rolls, I only partake in the pigs).

I set the oven to the proper temperature I asked the older sister to pull out the ingredients we would need for our pigs in a blanket. We laid the culinary materials out on the counter and I began asking her questions. If we have 4 whole hot dogs, how many pieces do we cut them up into to end up with 12? And if we have 8 big pieces of dough, how do we turn that into 16 smaller pieces? We went along through the process and not only was she not freaking out over doing math, she was really concentrating and wasn’t getting nearly as frustrated when it took her some time to figure out the answers. Then, after the cooking was complete, the most important question, if we wanted all 3 of us to get the same amount of pigs each, how many do we each get? She very proudly, and with only a moment’s thought, stated “4”, and promptly turned to her brother and said, “Did you hear that? Only4.” She was still mad about having to go back to her real math homework after that, but once we got into it she was much less frustrated and was, at the very least, not screaming and giving up anymore.

One of the only big changes in our schools over the last 50 years that really stands out to me is the discouragement of competition, all this everyone is a winner and nobody ever loses nonsense. Yes, because when I have kids and they grow up I really want them to have no idea how to deal with failure and disappointment. No, not really! I want them to be able overcome the bad feelings that come from losing and still be able to congratulate the winner and appreciate that another’s success doesn’t take something away from them, but is an opportunity to learn. I know no kid is ever just going to understand that, which is why I think you need to let them fail and then teach them how to deal with it. When they grow up and move out and start a new job there are going to be failures, they will be disappointed by something at some point and how they deal with it is going to, to an extent, depend on how they learned to deal with it as a child. If we never teach our kids how to lose, they will never fully appreciate winning. Learning to understand that losing or failing doesn’t mean the end of the world, but that it is a valuable opportunity to learn how to do better in the future, and that success can sometimes mean really enjoying the activity regardless of whether you are the best at it or not is an incredibly important tool you can teach a child, so they can become strong, independent, and happy adults.

Having been able to be a significant part of my nanny kids’ early education has been one of the greatest joys of my life so far. To a large extent, they are why I am so passionate about the need to change many of the antiquated techniques used by of our public education system. I have found the most success helping the kids to better comprehend new concepts when I put those concepts into a context they are able to make strong associations with and are interested in. I believe the best way to teach children is by using their own curiosity and interests to fuel the learning process. This creates incentives to learn against a backdrop of endless opportunities for distraction. The great days are when they thank me for it, the best days are when they use these techniques themselves and find pride and joy in learning to learn.

Mary Endicott

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