{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Part I } Re-education of a Schoolaholic


{ Read the Introduction }

Attending graduate school in design was a transformative experience. Soon after I started, I found myself completely fascinated by the role that motivation plays in learning.

Given that I was a teacher for six years, it’s odd to realize only now that I never probed the motivation of my own students very deeply. I suppose I assumed that if they generally accepted the notion that school was important, then that was motivation enough. Indeed, a problematic assumption in several ways.

So why, a decade later, did I become fixated on motivation and learning?

Returning to school, full-time and in my late thirties, was a privilege and a sacrifice. I was committing two years of intensive work while in a relationship and raising a daughter — not to mention giving up an income. Those two years really needed to count. As you can imagine, this attitude put some pressure on my experience — and on my professors.

At Pratt’s Communications Design MFA program, I spent our three-hour, 11-student classes obsessively observing the shifting dynamics in the room. I assessed everyone, including myself — our variable attention, engagement, and affect. I created lists of the innumerable circumstances — many of which were completely extrinsic to the curriculum — that would sharpen X’s focus, blunt Y’s enthusiasm, or shut down Z’s receptivity.

I developed an acute awareness of classroom practices I felt were not successful, and curiosity around those I felt were. As I became aware of the delicate, fluctuating nature of student engagement itself, I set out to protect it if I could. I became the squeaky wheel of my class. If the purpose of an assignment felt murky, I spoke up. If class time wasn’t being used efficiently, I spoke up. If a classmate was confused but didn’t ask for clarification, I spoke up. And to their credit, my professors tolerated this admirably. Some of them even welcomed it. Regardless, I wasn’t looking for their approval.

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It wasn’t always thus.

At age 12, I went to an independent school in New York City, and I’ve long considered those the intellectually formative years of my life.

I was a schoolaholic. A highly functioning schoolaholic: hard working, academically successful, and eager to please.

Luckily, the very nature of school — its structured challenges and transparent hierarchies — worked for me. As though reflexively, I developed winning formulas for success in school.

And I received constant approval and praise — which I quickly developed a taste for. Indeed, my teenaged self never dreamed of voicing criticism to my teachers. Sure, I occasionally disliked their requirements, but I didn’t question them.

In fact, I wasn’t especially interested in questions. I was interested in answers — right answers, and having them. Those of you versed in the work of cognitive psychologist Carol Dweck will recognize symptoms of a fixed mindset.

In short, my motivation in school was to be a good student. I didn’t think much about the world beyond school. When I did, I assumed that my successes in school would translate into future successes, ones that would automatically be meaningful to me.

It wasn’t until I went to design school that I embraced the difference between being a good student, which is a winning formula for being in school, and being a good learner, which is a lot closer to a winning formula for living your life.

Next: How and why design school made me rethink…* 

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