The Gift of Learning – Part 2 (of 6)

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 engaged learning

Last week, I began a new six-part series on The Gift of Learning, a topic that I’m very passionate about, especially given the privilege I have of working with many kids and teens.  If you’ve missed Part 1, please make sure you check it out before reading today’s blog further, as it sets the stage for what’s to come.

As we’ve evolved over the years into a society that places a huge emphasis on academic success (hopefully leading to career and financial success), I want you to recognize the price that our kids pay for this. The growing number of kids who suffer from performance and test anxiety is astounding; school phobia and school refusal is on the rise; and self-esteem, anxiety and depression issues related specifically to academics is increasing exponentially in younger and younger kids.  Perfectionism and a fear of failure haunt far too many of our kids.

In the face of that, I want to speak for the kids who often have no voice.  In a world where it doesn’t pay to be different, I want to teach kids that being “weird” is marvelous and a gift to this world.  I want to help them discover what makes them unique and special and to learn how to accept and enjoy the way they are wired – to see it as a good thing that they are distinct from their peers.  I want to teach them how to fight against conforming to the world’s expectations of what it means to be “successful” and trying desperately to fit into a man-made system with man-made ways of assessing their fit.  We say that we celebrate diversity in North America, but let’s face it, that’s not what’s really happening in many homes and schools – not when it comes to the different ways that kids learn and think.

True Success

Even more disturbing, studies indicate that while academic measures are very good at indicating who will do well within the school system, they are actually very poor indicators about who will do well in the real world.  The kind of mind that can do well on tests that deal with miscellaneous facts is not necessarily the kind that does well in the real world.  In their famous book, The Millionaire’s Mind, Thomas J. Stanley and Jon Robbin did in-depth statistical research to identify which variables caused people to become wealthy and successful in life. Their research found that, contrary to popular belief, there was no significant statistical correlation between how successful these individuals were later in life and their grades in school.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not suggesting that we tear down our educational system and teach our kids to have a bitter attitude towards their teachers or schools.  I believe that many of our teachers are incredible and work very hard to do their best to develop our kids.  Often, their hands are tied in what they can do too.  So we should not become adversarial against teachers and the educational system in our desire to fight for what’s best for our kids.  Instead, I’m suggesting that we shift our emphasis from seeing school as a place for our kids to get good marks to an environment where they learn important life skills:

  • how to deal with and be resilient in the face of tough realities
  • how to cooperate and work with others, even difficult personalities
  • how to respect authority even if you don’t agree with their position or stance
  • how to stand up for themselves in the face of bullying or peer pressure
  • how to impact others positively even when others are negative around them.

Just think of all the incredible character-building and faith-strengthening opportunities our kids will face in their schools.  So choose instead to define success in THESE terms, and not in having good grades, and reinforce those family values over and over again.

Often I tell the teens and parents I work with that they just need to get through high school with their sanity intact (only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) – high school being one of those odd times that will, thankfully, never be repeated in life.  Think about it:  all of the intense academic, social, and relational pressures coupled with our kids being in the developmental stage of trying to figure out who they are, their passions and strengths, and finding their voice.  And all of this in an environment that is frankly not geared toward helping them do any of this well.  And oh, by the way, you better have your life figured out in four years before you’re let loose into the world.

Our Role As Parents

But I have to say this:  as parents, we play a critical role in helping our kids to develop these skills and resiliency in the face of a world that can be unforgiving and coercive in pushing them into a mould that wasn’t meant for them; from the modelling we do as WE face reality with character, faith and grace; to the way we nurture and respond with empathy to their struggles; to the way we help them understand and cultivate their unique strengths and personalities; to the strength of our relationships with our kids. So no, we don’t just send our kids out to school and expect them to thrive on their own.

How does this tie back into learning?  Well, research is now showing us that our brain connections are formed in the context of relationships.  Research shows that our brain’s neural pathways are hard-wired based on our attachment experiences.  In other words, your relationships with your kids — the way you love them and connect with them — actually impact their brain wiring which is significant in their learning.

Research confirms what many of you may already know instinctively, kids who are secure, know that they are loved and accepted for who they are, and feel emotionally safe with their parents, are also much more likely to learn to the fullest potential.  That type of loving home environment actually sets up your kids’ brains to learn the best.  And I’m sure you’ve observed this as well:  when your kids are being taught by a loving teacher who is safe to them and believes in them, they will tend to flourish.

Kids, on the other hand, who grow up in a critical or harsh home environment, who don’t have anyone who believe in them, rarely succeed in reaching their full potential, unless another loving and stable relationship later in life helps them overcome this initial setback.  There is so much more I can say about the importance of your relationship with your kids but it goes beyond the scope of this blog.  For more information about this, you can check out my CD series, Life-Proofing Your Kids.

How We Learn

What’s interesting is that generation after generation, parents have typically scanned their kids’ report cards and focused on the lower marks.  They would then spend time, energy and focus trying to help the kids improve in those areas.  A recent poll showed that more than 70 percent of parents focused on the failing grades as opposed to the good marks.

Not that parents should ignore the F’s – sometimes you do have to try harder to get better – but study after study show that people will not learn and grow the most in their areas of weaknesses.  Instead you will learn and grow the LEAST in your areas of weakness, and whatever learning and growth you’ve achieved will be hard won (and more readily lost if you don’t regularly use that learning).

The truth is that our kids will grow the most in their areas of greatest strengths.  If you ignore this truth and don’t cultivate it in your kids, they will never grow to their full potential or understand how gifted they truly are.  They will never know who they really are or their potential to succeed in their lives.  Beyond giving a chance for our kids to shine, strengths-based learning significantly helps students to be highly motivated to learn and be engaged in the learning process.  And those two factorsmotivation and engagement – are critical to successful learning.

Strengths-based learning also:

  • connects to what students already have inside them
  • builds on their prior experiences and successes
  • generates positive emotions (which leads to greater motivation)
  • fosters a sense of competence and confidence
  • helps them stay engaged and interested even when they encounter setbacks
  • develops their natural curiosity, and
  • fosters their love of learning.

What saddens me are the many adults I speak with – like many of you perhaps – who never know their strengths or understand that there are many things about them to celebrate and use for a good purpose.  And that’s because well-meaning parents haven’t helped their kids identify their strengths and gifts or encourage their growth in these areas, especially if they’re in areas that parents consider “impractical” or too different from themselves.

And so a really important truth for you to remember from today’s blog:  your kids will learn the most, grow the most, and develop the most in their areas of greatest strengths.  And there is a biological reason for this:  our brains are very efficient and will look first to pre-existing infrastructure or synapses to build upon rather than the much greater effort of creating new synapses in new areas.  It’s true:  it really does hurt my brain to do something that it isn’t geared to do!

Stay tuned for the next four weeks as I share more about learning styles, learning disabilities and ways we can help foster successful learning in our kids.  In the meanwhile, please feel free to comment or ask questions that I may be able to develop in the remainder of this series.  And feel free to pass today’s blog on to others who could benefit from this!


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