Finding Meaning in Learning

(by Michell. Original post in Chinese: 瑟谷自主學習(一):所有學習都富有意義

After unschooling my son for years and test running Sudbury this year, I am amazed by how children learn on their own. The way they learn is completely different from how I learned when I grew up.

One of the big differences is that, whatever my son learns is meaningful to him, while I could not find any meaning in my school years.

When I was a kindergarten teacher many years ago, some students asked, “Why do I have to learn this?” As a teacher, I always made sure my answer was positive. But in fact, this question has triggered me to ponder for a long time, as it is reflecting the deepest yearn of a human being, that is, the need to find meaning in life.

Children (and adults too) will naturally and actively do things that are meaningful to them, and remember things that they care about. The true satisfaction and happiness in life come from doing what they find meaningful. If children can’t find meaning in what they are doing, of course they will ask “why”. It’s because they are aligned with their souls, yearning to live meaningfully.

Some time ago, I have done a survey about “Ideal Education”. The survey showed that 100% of the participated parents hope that their children are intrinsically motivated to learn. So how can children be intrinsically motivated? To me, if they are interested in something and find meaning in it, they will be intrinsically motivated to learn more. For example, when my son was obsessed with dinosaurs, he would automatically include “dinosaurs” in all the activities he did everyday, like reading dinosaur books, drawing dinosaurs, baking dinosaurs cookies, etc. He would even be motivated to learn English and Chinese simply because he was eager to read those books.

We are all born with intrinsic motivation to learn, until extrinsic motivation is introduced such as rewards, punishment, recognition, praise, grades, people’s expectation, fear of the future, etc. I recalled one of my capable friends saying, “I’m always the best employee and do so well in whatever field I’m in. But it doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I always want to know what job should I do so that I’ll feel meaningful and content.

All children are born to know what make them feel content and meaningful. And how did we lose it?

In Sudbury, children learn according to their curiosity and passion. We can’t control their intrinsic motivation. We can only support them to find their meaning in life.