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How To Encourage Your Child to Be a Life-long Learner

What with tuition costs skyrocketing, have you ever stopped to consider the quality of the education your kids are gonna get in college? It better be good, right? And yet, according to an article in Time Magazine, less than half of college graduates can identify John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

I’ll give you a clue kids: he’s the youngish looking guy in the middle of the group! Though honestly, if I saw him out of context — say, standing in line for a coffee dressed in stone-washed jeans and a Phish tee-shirt — I don’t know if I’d recognize him either. Does that make me an uninformed citizen?

The hallmark of higher education in America has been producing a well-rounded functioning member of society, and yet how we define “well-rounded” has been open to debate since the birth of our education system. Not all students learn the same things at every college and university. The University of Chicago is famous for its Great Books program and curriculum, while the joke at my alma mater, Oberlin College, was that you could be an English major and never have read a book published before the 1900’s.

Most essential to success in the 21st Century, I think, is possessing the intellectual self-awareness to know when you don’t know something, having a hungry curiosity to fill those zones of ignorance, and being savvy enough to pick up new skills. In other words, being a life-long learner.

I was reminded of this when I saw that Jimmy Kimmel segment that’s been going viral, where Angelenos on the street are asked if they prefer Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. The joke is, they’re the same thing by different names. This clip has been going around with comments like “this is the problem with Americans today they’re so uninformed!” But the real problem is that people weighed in on the subject, instead of just admitting they were clueless, or reaching for a smartphone for help. (I’m sure some did this, we just didn’t see them.)

There’s no shame in not knowing something. However, pretending to know what you’re talking about when you do not, or making a decision based on ignorance, isn’t the smartest life strategy.

The end of college (or grad school, or what-have-you) does not mark the conclusion of your education. The world is ever-changing, and we need to keep up with it. A college has done a good job not if it’s provided students with intellectual fish, but if it’s taught them how to fish for themselves. That process begins now, in childhood.

  • It’s a big, beautiful world out there! 1 of 9
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    How do you foster curiosity, so that they always want to learn about it? Click on to find out...

  • Develop passions. 2 of 9
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    Books. Sports. Music. Cooking. Whatever it is, help your child develop passions — look for the things that they already love to do, and encourage them to delve deeper, whether by taking a class, visiting a museum, buying them more LEGOs, etc. Having passions gives you something to talk about with people, and makes it easy to form friendships with those who share your interest. Your child will develop a sense of ownership around the subject, and feel proud of themselves for their accomplishments — I read all these books, or I hit a home run, or I helped Daddy cook dinner. A passion also gives kids the experience of learning about a subject independently, and that's something they can apply to other subjects later in life.

  • Encourage them to ask questions. 3 of 9
    questions2

    Yes, it can be aggravating when your child asks "why" again and again. (For proof, listen to Louis C.K. on the subject. He nails it.) And yet, an active mind is one that does not simply accept, but one that challenges, and turns things over, and investigates. Questions beget questions — asking what leads to asking how, and then of course, why. A person can't learn a thing without a legitimate sense of curiosity.

  • Teach them how to discover answers. 4 of 9
    answers

    After the questions come the answers, not all of which you'll know, I'm sure. Show your children how you uncover information. Turn to books, to the Internet. Conduct experiments, stage demonstrations. More importantly, use your imagination and hypothesize!

  • Emphasize knowing the why and the how over the what. 5 of 9
    questions

    What's more important than identifying the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court? Knowing what a Chief Justice does. Knowing how the Supreme Court functions and why it's an essential part of our government. Facts are out there waiting to be plucked from the pages of books and websites. Understanding why those facts are significant and how they relate to one another, on the other hand, is something a person needs to know how to do for him or herself.

  • Discuss patterns and problem solving strategies. 6 of 9
    patterns

    When Felix is playing with his LEGOs and comes up with some clever way of putting a car together, I'll point out the strategy that he used. "Oh, look! You staggered those blocks to make stairs leading up to the top. Very cool." It's kind of an annoying parent-thing to say, but I want him to be aware of how he went about solving problems, so that he can remember for the future and apply those same strategies in different scenarios.  

  • Model that it’s ok not to know the answer. 7 of 9
    dontknow

    Often, I have no idea why something is the way it is, and I just tell Felix that, straight-up. "Why don't you know, Daddy?" he asks. "Because Daddy doesn't know everything." And then we'll either hunt for an answer, or talk about how we might go about hunting for an answer, or discuss why the question is one we can't answer. Either way, I'm demonstrating that there are limits to what a person knows, and there's no fault in coming up against them. Rather, these limits become places where you can either be motivated to learn more, or where your imagination comes into play.

  • Continue to learn new things yourself. 8 of 9
    new things

    My wife just started a Spanish class, I've restarted my running and yoga routines, and each of us keeps a book on the night table — we're always reading. (I can't wait till Felix is able to read on his own, so that we can sit together, each with our own book.) Our kids model themselves on us, so show them that even grown-ups still have a lot to learn. This can be as simple as trying a new recipe, or doing a familiar task in a different way. You can teach old dogs new tricks!

  • Enthusiastically expose them to the world around them! 9 of 9
    nyc

    The more you know, the more you realize how much there is to learn. Expose your children to as much of the world as possible. Take them to museums and movies, games and theater, on trips to other countries and on expeditions in the backyard. Nature is beautiful, and so are the trappings of civilization. Help them see the wonder in it all by partaking of it yourself.  

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