MAKING THE GRADE: What can we learn about education from Olympians?

By Daily News • Last Updated 12:49 pm on Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

For the past couple of weeks many of us have been enjoying watching the Winter Olympics. Whatever your feeling about these games, there is one point on which I think we can all agree. The athletes who have participated have been single minded in their effort to qualify to participate. They have prepared and trained with a focus on their goal and in the end, whether they received a medal or not, the results of their determination were obvious. Their accomplishments were stunning.

One quote I read particularly caught my attention: “Some of the most successful athletes are not necessarily the strongest or fastest, but simply those who are best at staying motivated.”

Because of my interest in education, I could not help but make a comparison. Whether it is as individuals or as institutions, are we as single minded and focused as these athletes in our efforts to provide an education that will develop adults with this kind of focus and determination?

My recent reading includes a book, “Motivated Minds, Raising Children to Love Learning,” by Deborah Stipek and Kathy Seal. It reminds me once again that learning begins as soon as a child is born. Infants begin early to experiment by dropping toys over the side of their crib, reaching, touching and grabbing. They are wired to learn. As the authors of this book point out, “As children grow, this inborn desire to learn can continue like a raging river, a gentle stream, or a tiny trickle.” So much depends on the adults in a child’s life. Do they nurture and encourage or sit back and watch the child’s interest vanish.

I am encouraged that the authors recognize the value of play to a growing child. They caution us to not program our children too much, but rather to allow them to investigate for themselves and become self-motivated. Technology is great but I firmly agree with the authors that children need some toys that they can make do something. My grandchildren and I had so much fun with our large building blocks and our Brio wooden train. We spent hours together building castles or creating different layouts with our wooden tracks. I firmly believe it helped them to become creative and self directed adults.

All through their growing up years, whether at home or school, children need adults that encourage them to take risks, to investigate and to learn. In fact, as adults we continue to have the need for that kind of motivation and stimulation. Learning should not stop when our formal education ends.

And as the adults responsible for the education of our children and youth, I have to wonder if we are dedicated to stimulating students and helping them to become self motivated. Are we as dedicated to creating young people who are as committed to a goal as the Olympic athletes? Do we really believe that self-motivated students learn more, understand it better and remember it longer.

Some days I worry that our obsession with directing, testing and evaluating has caused us to lose our way. It should be more important that we nurture learning, help students see the relevance of education and help them be more like Olympic athletes. We need to be sure our policy makers understand what education is about and what the ultimate goal is or should be.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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