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Helping children love learning

EducationWorld April 13 | EducationWorld Sports Education

“Education is a process of living, not a preparation for the future”  John Dewey, American educationist (1859-1952)

Every human being seeks meaning in life. We all yearn for a sense of significance, and importance — some higher purpose in our lives. Students are no exception: they also crave a higher purpose which they hope to realise through education. What they do eight hours a day, five days a week and for 160-200 days per year needs to make sense in the long run. Telling students at each stage that “you’re in elementary school to move to middle school,  you go to middle school to move up to high school, you go to high school so you can go to college, you go to college to get a job, to buy a home…” isn’t enough to satisfy the hunger for meaning.

Sports education teaches us that planning is necessary but attention to the moment, to the here and now, is of prime importance, both in practice and during a big game. In football, if a player focuses totally on a pass directed to him and watches the ball all the way onto his foot, he’ll most likely be able to pass it on or bang it into the net. If he thinks about his next move before he takes control of the ball, he’ll probably muff the pass to him altogether.

Similarly on a cricket green, if a batsman starts his backlift in sync with the bowler’s delivery and the ball is in the strike zone, his bat speed will be appropriate to make solid contact with the ball. If he starts his backlift too early, he’ll probably end up overcommitting before he can recognise the speed and direction of the ball and will in all likelihood miss it.

Athletes from all sports say that to maximise chances of success, they must do their best one step at a time. If they start thinking about a previous or future game it distracts from the task at hand, which is to win the game they’re in right now.

This is true of education as well. If we send children to school to be fulfilled, to enjoy learning about things that are relevant to their lives in the present, instead of focusing on future outcomes, they will begin to enjoy learning for its own sake without bothering about the future. They will enjoy the subjects which fulfill them, and derive the joys of being themselves.

Participation in sports and games teaches children to catch or control the ball before running with it, to start the backlift at the right time, and to remain focused on what they’re doing here and now instead of what happened before, or might happen later. It teaches us that if we do the right thing at the right time consistently, the final score will be excellent.

Naturally, parents and teachers want the best for their children. They want them to grow up, graduate and have successful careers and lead happy personal lives, without ever wanting for food, clothing, shelter, health, happiness, and love.

Dedicated educators know their job is to provide the learning outcomes that will give parents what they wish for their children. They are also well aware this is a huge responsibility.

Yet in an outcomes and success focused world, we need a change of perspective. There’s a global need to shift gears to focus on the subject of learning itself. Adults — parents and educators alike — need to teach children the joy of learning which comes naturally because we are all born to learn. Perhaps more than anything else, the innate desire to explore, to understand and create, which makes us human and explains the progress of civilisations, needs to be ignited and legitimised in education.

Meaningful education occurs when students perceive the connection between education and their immediate needs. This requires two crucial and related prerequisites: engagement and activity. Without these two ingredients, students simply go through the motions. We need to work out ways to make learning an adventure — because, in truth, it is an adventure, indeed the ultimate human adventure.

Engagement is of course, a two-way street. Usually students will not become engaged unless educators — parents and teachers — are thoroughly focused in their relationships with students. Teachers who are absorbed in and knowledgeable about their subjects, and parents who literally understand — are standing under their children when they fall or fail in their endeavours — must be fully supportive. In short, children won’t care to learn what a teacher teaches unless the teaching comes alive, and parents make genuine efforts to understand children. In a sense, both teachers and parents would do well to follow what existential psychologist Rollo May referred to as the role of a midwife: “Completely real in being there, but being there with the special purpose of helping the other person to bring to birth something from him/herself.”

The challenge for contemporary parents and teachers is to guide today’s youth to take their lives and learning opportunities seriously. In the words of German psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a contemporary of the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, “The patient needs an experience, not an explanation.”

(Dr. George A. Selleck is a San Francisco-based advisor to EduSports, Bangalore)

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