“What’s the point of studying history? Who cares what happened long ago?”
Thus begins the first chapter of A History of Us, The First Americans, Prehistory-1600, a read aloud our family is engaged with on weekend mornings. The framework of the book is that history is full of stories and mysteries that intrigue us still today. In one weekend, our boys learned about bones from domesticated dogs 14,000 years ago, Neanderthal skulls, and the earth bridge Beringia that formed between Asia and Alaska during the Ice Age.
Will they remember the content forever? Probably not. But, with a time commitment of only about five minutes, our boys were primed to wonder about the past, the land we stand on, and people that came before us. And they did so through the comfort of the read-aloud.
We all know the adage, the more you know the more you can learn. But, what most people don’t realize is that any reading comprehension test is actually a knowledge test in disguise. The more background knowledge we have about a topic, the more likely we are to understand what we are reading. The more basic knowledge we have about history, science, geography, and civics, the more we can apply what we know to new situations and further readings. When you watch children light up from learning in classrooms (and on living room couches), it’s because they are positioned to wonder, imagine, and feel as though they’ve learned something useful and novel.
What’s happening beneath the surface of those lit up faces? When we learn something new, our brains have a rush of the reward chemical dopamine. Thanks to developments in brain imaging, we know that learning something new causes the brain to build connections and neurons. When learning occurs, we look forward to learning even more.
When we support students and children to learn about topics that grow their knowledge about the world, it naturally creates conditions that drive curiosity, empathy, and knowledge-building. It ignites a cycle of learning children want to repeat. After reading about the Ice Age and mammoths, our boys took off in their own directions. One to get better at skateboarding in the driveway the other to read his How to Get Better at Basketball book followed by drills in the basement. The day started with a new family ritual around learning and self-direction followed.
But, when you experience days without feeling as though you learned anything, boredom sets in. Not the kind of boredom that is part of a fulfilling childhood or that leads to creativity and productivity. But, boredom that creates habitual passivity and leaves you asking, “Is this all there is?”
As teachers and parents, it’s helpful to remember that knowledge-building matters not only for success in school but to prime children’s brains for all kinds of joyful learning. So what can you do?
- At the end of the day, ask your students and children “What’s something you learned today?”
- Balance read-alouds between books that support knowledge-building with books that are purely imaginative. Search the The Classroom Bookshelf for recently released books that I blog about with colleagues. In our home and in my classroom experiences, mornings are better for knowledge-building and afternoons and evenings are better for imaginative stories. At home, we are deep into the fourth illustrated Harry Potter and that remains an important way we wind down at night.
- If you are assigning passages to support students to practice skills and strategies, remember that content matters–rather than a pinball reading experience of different topics different days, look for texts that support students to grow greater knowledge about a topic over time.
- Share things you are learning from the cake you baked for the first time to books you’re learning from on your nightstand. Learning itself is joyful.