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When learning feels like a forced march

Friday, February 12th, 2010

I recently posted about how external rewards can destroy children’s intrinsic motivation, and noted that my participation in Pizza Hut’s read-a-book-get-a-pizza program, “Book It,” did not interfere with my extremely strong intrinsic motivation to read.

However, what actually did come close to killing my intrinsic motivation to read was the crushing required reading lists I had during my first three semesters of college. This experience turned reading from something I loved doing to something to just be endured.

For example, in my first semester of college, I took a required course on the Epic in Western Literature. My amazing teacher taught with great passion, drawing on her experience both as a poet and a scholar fluent in multiple languages.

She was the only professor I had in my undergraduate career who incorporated the arts into an academic class. In addition to our analytical essays, everyone also completed an art project of their own design inspired by what we’d read. My art project, a cello piece based on text from the Aeneid, actually ended up growing into a much larger piece after the class was over.

Despite my teacher’s exceptional amazingness, this class almost caused me to lose my love of reading. I experienced the course as a forced march through the great works of Western literature. In one semester we plowed right through the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Paradise Lost, and Dante’s Inferno. I read it all, but I rarely enjoyed it, and I almost lost my love of reading.

At the end of the year, I actually told one of my friends that I “didn’t like books” anymore. This is coming from a kid who inhaled literature out of sheer pleasure my entire life until I got to college.

What happened? When I had been inhaling books before, they were all books I chose freely. And I moved at my own pace. But I definitely couldn’t choose what I was reading in this course. The course itself was required. And moreover, I felt there was no time to understand anything or connect to anything.

In retrospect, it reminds me of the trips I made to the National Gallery of Art when I was in fourth grade. My teacher tried to cram as much as possible into each trip—upon entering a new room, she’d instruct us to stand by our favorite painting before purposefully marching on into the next room. At the end of the trip, she would proudly exclaim, “We saw so much art!”

I’m sure her intention was to cultivate a love of the arts in her students, but even though I loved art before and after those trips, I don’t remember anything about the art I saw on those fourth grade trips.

I feel like a work of art can be like meeting a person. There’s so much to be revealed. But what is the point of speed-dating artworks? What do you really learn from speedwalking through galleries or speed-reading through epics?

I believe the point is not exposure, but connection. If we read something but don’t connect to it and don’t remember it, does it even matter? The one bit of the Aeneid that I do remember is the piece of text I used in my art project. I spent so much time setting it to music that now it’s part of who I am.

Once, while visiting a small art museum in DC, I stumbled across a Miró painting I never dreamed I’d see in person, and I was so happy that I actually laughed out loud. The museum guard glared at me—I guess for breaking the silence of the deserted gallery. In my heart, I thought Miró would have been glad I was excited to see him.

I think the whole point is that a piece of art will pierce your heart and help you feel less alone, and move you to laughter and tears.

I wish we were encouraged to digest things more, and had enough time with what we’re learning to get to know it and let it affect us.

Related Posts:
Praise and Intrinsic Motivation–an answer?
On Stickers
“Simple, but not easy.”

Tagged In: Topics: motivation

7 Comments on “When learning feels like a forced march”

  • Sue VanHattum on February 12th 5:47 pm

    Thanks for a wonderful post. I took a two-semester great books course (required for the honors program) my first year of college, in which we read most of what’s on that list of yours. I don’t remember that class making my love of reading lessen, but I sure didn’t get to make a deep connection with those books. (I also thought the writers were often sexist and the choices eurocentric. I would have liked a bit more breadth.)

    I took a Native American literature class in graduate school, and was distressed by how quickly we had to move through the luscious books we were reading.

    >I stumbled across a Miró painting I never dreamed I’d see in person

    Do you know the title of this? I’d love to see it.

  • Rebecca Zook on February 15th 2:21 pm

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful post! I’m glad that you get to play with math too, and never have any assignments to complete! Your comments remind me of what Rafe Esquith writes about reading — that the reason we want students to learn to read is so that they LOVE reading, and they want to read all the time. Adults who read, read because they crave it, not because they have to take a standardized test or fulfill a state learning requirement. Just like — how if we never get to play with math, we might never learn to love it for its own sake.

    Here is a link to the painting, called The Red Sun, a the Phillips Collection:

  • Sue VanHattum on February 12th 5:49 pm

    (meant to say…)

    I was thinking as I read this of the connection to math, how fun it is when we choose it, and how stressful otherwise.

    I love that I get to play with math these days, and never have any ‘assignments’ to complete.

  • Rebecca Zook on February 15th 2:22 pm

    Oops, the link didn’t work. Here it is again 🙂

  • liz on March 15th 12:27 pm

    I gave up reading for fun almost entirely during college. I, too, inhaled books up until college. Then, I just had so much other reading that I couldn’t stand the thought of doing MORE reading outside of classes. I finished my most recent round of school in 2007, and between that experience and spending several years devoted to getting life in order post-college, I’m only just now starting to get back into reading for fun.

  • Rebecca Zook on March 19th 6:26 pm

    Liz, thanks for stopping by, it’s nice to “meet” you here! I totally hear what you’re saying and I’m glad you are starting to recover your love of reading!

    I actually think for me the turning point came when I re-read the children’s book Matilda by Roald Dahl mid-way through college. Have you read it? It’s about a little girl who discovers *her* love of reading. I had bought it as a birthday present for a friend and before I gave it to her, I thought, I’d better read this over to make sure she’ll really like it. And reading it made me feel SOOO happy. I remembered what it felt like to really love reading when I was little!

  • […] I also came across this post after reading Laura Grace Weldon’s (of ‘Free Range Learning’ fame) post (see link below). […]

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