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How Kids Want to Learn: New Research Emerges

How Kids Want to Learn: New Research Emerges

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Who ever said school is supposed to be fun? Sit a granddaughter down with her grandmother, and chances are the grandmother will talk about how much harder she had it growing up. School wasn’t just a bunch of fun and games. There was no such thing as recess or home living center. There was sitting quietly, listening to the teacher, doing your schoolwork, and then going home to do chores.

Somewhere along the way, though, we realized we could make the process of learning fun. It wasn’t necessary for school to be just about rote memorization, mind-bending repetition, or teachers tapping sticks against chalkboards. It could be exciting and engaging!

But what if the way they did it way back when was actually right?

David Geary, Ph.D., a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, published a paper in the Educational Psychologist this summer exploring this topic. Specifically, he explores what he calls “evolutionary educational psychology,” which is the connection between evolution, culture, and learning.

Geary summarizes his theory this way: “The gist of it is that if we think about modern-day education, there are some skills that are learned easily by kids whether or not they have formal schooling, and some skills only emerge with direct instruction from schooling.” For example, he explains, speaking is a skill that most children learn naturally without formal instruction, whereas reading and writing are skills that require instruction.

“What comes easily to people is part of our biological heritage,” Geary explains, “and what comes with more difficulty is part of our cultural heritage. The ability to get from one place to another, to remember landmarks, to speak—we have a built-in part of our brain to learn things in our biological heritage,” he says. “And we also have the ability to create things, new tools and machines, cultural innovations that are a bit of a disconnect from our biological heritage.”

Geary explains that as society becomes increasingly different, we add more cultural innovations, and we then ask our children to learn more evolutionary novel ideas and skills. “And learning these things doesn’t come easily to kids because there’s not a biological motivation to learn them,” he says. “The motivation to engage in reading and writing is just not there for many kids.”

Some parents are likely to be skeptical of this—for example, those with kindergarteners who are just now beginning to enthusiastically write, “I love, mom,” proudly presenting the words in 5-year-old chicken scratch on folded pieces of construction paper covered in red hearts.

But it’s not a question of whether children have the ability to engage and become enthusiastic about mastering these skills; it’s a question of whether the learning of these skills comes naturally. Children naturally speak, sing, run, skip, play, and interact with others. Do they naturally pick up a pen and start writing?

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