How to Keep Learning Alive at Home

Ellen Galinsky
August 25, 2017

I don't know about you, but thinking about back-to-school—particularly in the steamy hot days of August—would make me feel anxious when my children were younger. I was especially anxious about their new teachers. What if my son had teachers who didn't appreciate his persistence and creativity? What if my daughter had teachers who didn't appreciate her desire to take charge? Even more importantly, what if their teachers turned them off to learning?

When I was writing Mind in the Making, a group of parents wrote blogs for the book. One was from a mother of an almost four-year-old that I find particularly poignant because she pleas with others, including her child's future teachers, to nurture her three-and-a-half-year-old's "thirst for learning":

When my girl falls for something, she falls hard-obsessive, engulfing, constant worship. Lately, we're into bugs. After dinner, she and I head to the library and check out every book on arachnids. She has an imaginary friend—Ickson, a blue spider that "lives" on her ceiling in her room. She asks for Spider Juice or Spider Nuggets for dinner. I had a friend make a shirt for her with a spider on it, blue of course, for Ickson. She wore it for 18 days straight. Sometimes she'll get shorter, less intense obsessions—dinosaurs, scorpions, and volcanoes were recent hits.

I enjoy all of this because I can feel like a kid again, learning about this giant, amazing world as if for the first time. I hope she always stays this curious, this questioning. I hope she has teachers who act graciously toward her and her thirst for learning. Above all, I hope she never stops seeing this world as an incredible place.

I find this mother's plea so personally compelling because it echoes my reasons for writing Mind in the Making. Children are born unstoppable learners, yet I have found in my research that far too many of them get turned off to learning as they grow up. My question in interviewing and filming the more than 85 leading scientists on learning and then writing the book was: What can we do to keep the fire in children's eyes burning brightly? Here are some back-to-school suggestions for this research:

1.  Recognize that you are your child's most important learning coach. I am using the word "learning coach," not the word "teacher" intentionally. The mother of the girl who loves spiders is a great example. She takes the imaginary spider seriously, even asking a friend to make her daughter a shirt with a picture of Ickson on it; she goes along with serving Spider Juice and Spider Nuggets for dinner; and she takes her child to the library to learn more about spiders. She also encourages her child to catch spiders and keep them in jars for short periods so she can observe them to see what spiders do.

We tend to think of taking this role with young children, but not so much with our older ones. As the parent of now grown children, I can tell you that this remains important throughout children's lives. Whether I am helping one of my children think through how to respond when a coworker is difficult or how to refinance a mortgage, I am still "coaching."

2.  Promote your children's interests. The best way to keep learning alive for children is to promote their interests. When I'm asked to give one piece of advice for parents after all of my research on learning, it's always: "Make sure that each of your children has a lemonade stand."

I use this concept because my daughter and her friends had a lemonade stand when they were six and seven years old. There was so much learning that went it—math, reading, marketing! And these normally restless children would work for hours on their lemonade stand with incredible patience and joy.

Of course, I don't think all children should go into the lemonade business, but I do think they should all have an interest like this, whether it is music, film making, baseball, or dinosaurs. And they can be family projects—for example, the kind of projects that Maker Faires are promoting.

3.  Promote children's curiosity by encouraging them to answer their own questions. Laura Schulz of MIT has studied curiosity in children and finds that there are two kinds of situations where children become curious. The first is when an experience is new. Children, like all of us, are drawn to understand something that's new. The second is when children can't figure out how something works. In an experiment, Schulz gave children a jack-in-the-box toy, where two levers could make toy animals pop out. In situations where children weren't told how the toy worked, they would stay with this toy, trying to figure it out, rather than reaching for a new toy, however exciting the new toy was.

4.  Answer questions with "explanatoids" or more questions. There are times children when can't or shouldn't answer their own questions-when they need us to provide information or to spur them to persist. When we do provide information, we can do so in a way that keeps children engaged in learning. Maureen Callanan of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and her colleagues have observed families with their children at science museums and have found that providing explanatoids (brief, just-in-time explanations or information at the moment that children need it) and answering questions with questions helps to keep children exploring. Specific questions are better than general questions, too. The best questions ask children to focus on what's important ("do both levers make the toys pop up?"), gather new evidence ("what would happen if you pushed one lever and not the other?"), and then interpret the evidence. 

5.  Have children explain something they learned to you. Bethany Rittle-Johnson of Vanderbilt University has found that children are more likely to retain information if they talk out loud about what they have learned to a parent.

6.  Praise children's strategies and efforts, not personality or intelligence. The research of Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that children are more likely to want to keep learning, even to take on tough learning problems, if they are praised for their strategies ("you figured out how to make that toy work") or their efforts ("you worked so hard") than their intelligence ("you are so smart").

Overall, we keep learning alive at home by being learners ourselves. 

Originally published in 2010. 

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Your insights through Twitter, through your website and your book have been very helpful. I'm a Canadian Kindergarten teacher and teach a blended class of Juniors (age 4) and Seniors ( age 5). It is inspiring to hear from concerned parents and from your anecdotes to be reminded of what is REALLY IMPORTANT as a teacher of young children. Thank-you.

    over a year ago


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