My colleague Professor Jim Dvorak once came back from his classroom asking: “Did you hear any loud explosion in the classroom?” Seeing the shock on my face, he chuckled: ”It's students' minds being blown away! “
For a teacher, it ought to be deeply satisfying to set students’ minds ablaze. Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) said that “education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” Becoming such an educational arsonist involves more than a secret pedagogical match. It requires one to care about students, and to have a deep understanding of human psychology to help students learn with focus, purpose, confidence, and satisfaction.
I became interested in student motivation as I notice an increasing number of Chinese children dropping out of weekend Chinese schools. As untrained volunteers, many teachers are actually parents who teach the way they were taught while growing up in China, while the conditions for learning have changed for children. As a result, students can be frustrated or bored to tears with classes. Whey kids say they would wash dishes than going to the Chinese school, something is very wrong in the ways they learn. How are they going to love their roots in Chinese and China if all their memory is associated with pain?
The school invited veteran overseas Chinese teacher Professor Zhang Yajun to talk about Chinese teaching. Professor Zhang said something that really struck a cord in me: “In Chinese, we have so many expressions about ‘hard’ learning”, emphasizing that learning is necessarily difficult, without paying equal attention to the joys learning brings." We say things like “Hard work is the path in the mountain of books, arduous work is the boat in the sea of learning.” What if, for instance, you row the boat without the compass to navigate? Or worse, what if you don’t know where you are going in the first place?
Elements like purpose, effort, and play should be artfully orchestrated to produce the conditions for learning. In his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robionson stresses the importance of finding our intrinsic motivation which will guide us to live a productive and satisfying life. This ought to lead us Chinese to think beyond mere hard work.
There is nothing wrong with hard work itself. Most cultures stress hard work. In our agricultural tradition we say: “One portion of cultivation yields one portion of crop” (一分耕耘一分收获). Children in other cultures say similar things like “No bees, no honey; no work, no money.” Time on task is often one of the key contributors towards success at learning. Let’s not forget, however, that those who are effective learners have increased time doing what they enjoy or what they perceive to be meaningful, useful or at the very least necessary.
Take meaning for instance. When there is personal meaning to the subject matter, learning is not bitter and hard. For instance, students may be lukewarm towards teacher-assigned online discussions, but see what happens on their Facebook pages. What’s the difference there? Students simply find their Facebook sites to be places they “own”, or so they think.
Chinese parents often find it legitimate to force children to endure the hardships of learning without explaining why they are learning what they learn, using such lame excuses as: “they will understand it when they grow up.” If you cannot articulate the purpose to your children, maybe you do not know the purpose yourself. Maybe you just follow the faceless middle-class crowds who spend money sending their children to various after-school classes – let me be brutally honest here -- to have an illusion of being responsible. In these classes teachers pretend to teach and children pretend to learn. Your children may spend years studying piano to pass level tests, only to throw away all the books and never touch piano again when they “grow up”. Tell me about delayed satisfaction, and I can tell you about destroyed motivation, often happening in slow motion, over many years and across many regions.
If you love your child, transform learning into a voyage as described in the poem Ithaca by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy(1863 –1933):
“Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time.”
If there is such pursuit for discovery, then there is no need to fear “the Lestrygonians and the Cyclops, the angry Poseidon” in the learning process.