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The Passionate Learner: How Teachers and Parents Can Reclaim the Joy of Discovery for All Children

The Passionate Learner: How Teachers and Parents Can Reclaim the Joy of Discovery for All Children

by Robert L. Fried
A practical guide for keeping young people's curiosity alive

All children begin life as passionate, curious learners. But in school, too many become alienated from the joy of learning. Filled with stories and specific ideas, The Passionate Learner is a handbook for cultivating kids' passionate engagement with learning at all ages.

"A wise,


A practical guide for keeping young people's curiosity alive

All children begin life as passionate, curious learners. But in school, too many become alienated from the joy of learning. Filled with stories and specific ideas, The Passionate Learner is a handbook for cultivating kids' passionate engagement with learning at all ages.

"A wise, realistic treatise on the prospects of reclaiming children's engagement with learning. . . . Fried is inspirational and practical."
—Publishers Weekly

"[A] fascinating look at the way children lose their natural ability to learn as they enter and progress through school. . . . [Fried] outlines strategies for parents, teachers, and school systems to enliven the teaching process and recapture children's natural passion for learning. An inspiring resource for parents and teachers."

"Should be required reading for all educators committed to reforming classrooms and reviving the spirit of learning."
—Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Emory University

"Fried accomplishes here what so few education writers have even attempted—he speaks to parents in the same clear, nonjargon prose
he offers to teachers."
—Seymour Sarason, author of Teaching as a Performing Art

"Fried's reflections are dead-on."
—Teacher Magazine

"Accurate and thought-provoking analyses of what we believe and what schooling actually promotes."
—Principal Magazine

Robert L. Fried is associate professor of education at Northeastern University in Boston, and works with teachers and parents inschools around the country. Author of The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide, he lives in Concord, New Hampshire.

Editorial Reviews

Cynthia Parsons
I Want To Praise This Book. It's chock full of exciting and "doable" ways to encourage and stimulate a passion for learning--even what's required to be taught in K-12.
Hope Magazine
Publishers Weekly
How do preschool children, full of natural inquisitiveness and a passion for learning, turn into apathetic or angry teens with a profound dislike of school? Why do so many kids "see school as the enemy of what's interesting, fun, and worthwhile"? The answers lie in well-intentioned educational reform efforts that emphasize accountability and efficiency rather than genuine learning. Fried, an associate professor of education at Northeastern University, leads readers step-by-step to a deep understanding of the forces inhibiting learning, widening the achievement gap and diminishing teacher professionalism. His is no mere critique. Filled with classroom narratives, curriculum ideas and practical suggestions, Fried's counterpart to his The Passionate Teacher is a wise, realistic treatise on the prospects of reclaiming children's engagement with learning. One excellent section addresses how teachers try to meet the conflicting demands of engaging students in authentic learning while carefully measuring student achievement. In trying to conform to accountability measures, they often sacrifice "deeply held goals for teaching and learning excellence." How can teachers find their way out of this and other traps? Fried is inspirational and practical as he considers possible solutions to such educational problems. His ideas will encourage and guide both teachers and parents in the important work of creating learning environments in which students recapture their earlier joy in learning, become confident readers, writers and orators and rediscover the passion of discovery and accomplishment that is their birthright. (Nov. 15) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Publication date:
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5.84(w) x 8.78(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Promise

The child, awakening to the world. A world of light and sensation—of touch, of taste, of sounds familiar and unfamiliar. The human embrace that allows the child to reach out with confidence and encompass the world with her senses. Learning that happens continuously, joyously, both arduously and effortlessly. Crawling that leads to pulling oneself up to stand or lean against a chair, that leads to cruising along while holding onto the living room furniture, that leads to walking and then to running. The babbling that becomes "Mama" and "Dada," that grows by a slow accretion of sounds and words, cadenced by rapid explosions of new phrases and sentences, when circumstances and the child's own spontaneity call for them.

    Our son Peter, as a baby, running to his mother to warn that a friend's dog has grabbed hold of his brother Zach's favorite toy lamb. In panic, Peter forms his first sentence: "Ma Ma! No No! Woof Woof, Baa Baa!"

    The toddler who runs ahead of—away from—his mother, turning back every so often to make sure she is following closely; who dares to take on the world so long as the protecting arms will be there. The early years, so full of learning and the increase of skills, awarenesses, words, questions, that their velocity and abundance cannot be captured by even the most ardent of parent chroniclers. Songs and rhymes sung and learned by heart, then proudly performed at church and family gatherings. Stories told. Books reread until their bindings wear out. Obstacles ofevery kind encountered and surmounted. The discovery of science, via the spider climbing down from the bathroom ceiling or the earliest dandelion pushing up in the yard. The world of the child is nothing but eating, sleeping, growing, loving—and learning.

    Andrew Meltzoff, coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn (I999), says that "cognitive developmental psychologists are now actually looking into the crib to study the development of the mind early on, even before children develop language. And what we find there is very interesting. We find a little scientist peering back at us—a child who is desperately interested in making sense of the people, the objects, and the language around him or her, a child doing mini-experiments to try to sort everything out."

A very small Asian girl, about two or three years old and accompanied by her American adoptive mom, gets on my commuter bus and sits in the row across from me. The girl begins to speak at once, and there follows an almost continuous stream of words:

"Oh, look, Mommy! There are no seat belts, here. This is just like a plane, but there are no seat belts. How come there are no seat belts? Aren't we supposed to use seat belts?" She bounces up and down, to demonstrate her freedom and her danger, then peers out the window.

"Oh, we're up so high! The cars look little. Are they little? Or are we big?"

There is a pause, while she sits down and starts to suck her thumb. Her mom nestles her, inviting her to take a nap, but in a moment, she is up again.

"Mommy, I'm scared. I'm scared about aliens. I don't want them to get me!"

She looks to her mom for reassurance. Her mom tells her there are no aliens.

"But I'm still scared of them. What will they do if they get me?" Patiently, her mom repeats that there are no such things as aliens.

"But they may be just out there, and we can't see them. Do you think they know I'm here?" Her eyes twinkle as she says this, as if she knows she is being playful about her fears. She hides beneath her mother's arm, while her mother carefully explains to her why she shouldn't be afraid.

"Okay," she says quietly.

There is a moment's pause, as though the little girl is trying to decide which is more real, her fantasies or her mother's solace.

"But what about vampires!"

Her mother tries to head this one off, asking, a bit sternly: "Now what do we know about vampires?" Soberly, the girl answers, in a tone of voice that lets everyone listening (she has drawn the attention of a number of the commuters) know that she knows what the right answer is—or ought to be.

"There are no real vampires. They don't exist."

"That's right," her mother tells her.

"I know they don't exist, Mommy, but what do they look like?"

Scientist, philosopher, observer of social phenomena, safety engineer, fantasist—the girl astounds us with her vocabulary, her energy, her intellect. Her mother tells me that she was adopted a little over a year ago and that for months she wouldn't say a word. "Then, one morning she woke up talking and hasn't stopped talking since." Meltzoff comments that "there seems to be a deep kinship between adults doing science and children learning. Some of the principles are the same: forming hypotheses, making predictions, doing experiments to test ideas. Even babies have theories of the world, very simple theories, but cognitive structures about how people, things, and language work." Author Frank Smith puts it this way: "Children spend the first years of life solving problems all the time. They are born learning; if there is nothing to learn, they are bored and their attention is distracted. We don't have to train children to learn, or even account for their learning; we have to avoid interfering with it."

This is the promise of the preschool child. A born learner, proud and proficient, gaining mastery of the known world within the embrace of home and family.

    And then. School. Play group to day care center to preschool to kindergarten. Growth. Adventure. Relationships. Anxiety, too. What parent does not face the prospect of school without awe, anxiety, hope, and foreboding mixed together to form a knot in one's stomach? Who among us, as parents, has not seen our child off to school without the fear that others—classmates, teachers, school staff—may not understand this child the way we do, love her as we love her, treasure the things we treasure, avoid what we try to avoid, and above all protect this child from too much of the world happening too quickly?

    On separate occasions I interviewed some parents of preschool children about questions like these. Here are excerpts from two of those interviews. One is with Mary, an editor who has taken several years off from work to spend at home with her daughter, Kate, who is three. The other is Opal, a native of Jamaica and a school nurse, whose three-year-old daughter, Sydney, is currently enrolled in a multicultural preschool. Mary talks about Kate:

She's ready to start preschool. In the fall, she'll be going to two preschools, for two mornings each. I feel like I can't give her more than I've given her up 'til now, and I need other people to give her I don't know what. And the point is, I don't know what! I'm starting to get a little nervous that I'm producing a little clone, and that she's going to share my strengths—which are getting As at school and being a quiet little spelling champ—but also come out with my weaknesses, such as a lack of initiative. I want her to learn the tools to become a confident investigator and to set her own goals and figure out how to get there, even if she makes some mistakes along the way.

Maybe my own school actually was a safer place to make mistakes than I imagined, but to my mind, school was about not making mistakes. So, I'm hoping she won't repeat that. But how to not repeat that is a really open question for me. Her involvement with books has really enlarged her vicarious experience —she knows about a lot of things, different kinds of lives, from books—books are great! But, given an open-ended essay question—will she be capable of taking the ball and running with it? Or will she wonder, "What's the right answer? What's the answer the teacher is fishing for?"

I ask Kate what she will be learning in school, and she says, "I am going to learn that wild animals can EAT YOU UP!" And then adds, "That's if you get too close."

    Opal looks ahead to kindergarten for Sydney:

One of the biggest things that I'm hoping for her from kindergarten, wherever we decide to send her, private or public, is that energy, that enthusiasm that she has now, that they will be able to understand that and to use it as a motivational tool. I mean, I understand that in any school, a child must be able to conform, to sit down and do what's appropriate. But when you see a child who's just such a spitfire, so full of energy, you wonder, in a year and a half, is she going to have to sit somewhere, regimented? At a desk? For hours and hours? So I want a school for her where her energy won't be squelched, even though I know that it has to be, well, channeled.

Sydney starts to bang on a piano. Her mom shushes her, and I invite her over for an explanation. I tell Sydney, "The reason we want you to be quiet is that your mommy is telling me about you. She is saying some very interesting things about you, and I want to be sure that I can hear them. But if you make too much noise, then I won't be able to hear your mommy talk about you. Okay?"

    And Sydney puts her lips up to the microphone and says, "I want to talk about me. And I want to talk about my Dada." And she tells us a little story before trotting away. Her mother continues:

I see children all the time in kindergarten who are like Sydney. You see them running in in the morning. They're so excited. They are ready! And then, all of a sudden, I hear someone shouting at them: "You have to line up straight in line! No talking when you're walking in the corridor!" It's order, order, order, order. I almost cringe when I hear a teacher speaking that way to the children. Now, that may be just this one teacher's style, but I think it's indicative of school. When they walk into my office, they're almost becoming stoics. That fire, that energy is gone! They have to do everything in order. It's so orderly.

    I ask Mary, "What about going beyond preschool? You seem to think that in a traditional elementary school, Kate'll be a star."

That's a scary thing. I mean, it's not on my agenda for her to be a star. Her father and I were both academic "stars," and I think, where did that get me? Kind of nowhere, in the sense that it didn't serve me well in the real world. I developed this uncanny, intuitive ability to produce work that would please my mentor figures. And that was my whole goal. That was what it was about for me. Finding an advisor I revered and then making her approve of me. So I want Kate to have a good time in school. And I want her to learn everything she's interested in, without impediment, or being frustrated, or being slapped on the wrist.

We talk for a while about different kinds of schools—public and private, traditional and experimental:

I think in a traditional setting, she would do beautifully—an all-A student, a teacher-pleaser. That's not necessarily what I want for her. Of course, I want her to be successful. But I think what I'm hoping we'll be able to find is a setting where she will be pushed to find her stride in other ways, ways she doesn't get from me. We're very academic, bookish people. She's sort of all set to go in there and get all the spelling words right and raise her hand for everything. That's sort of a natural result of three years full-time at home with me, talking and talking and talking.

What I want her to learn is other stuff that's even hard for me to name. Working with people, with spatial relationships—it's not stuff I was ever trained in—learning in other ways, integrating things that you learn, so that you can move from one realm to another realm. There's a whole box of blocks here, which she ignores for their 3-D properties; she uses them to make walls for houses, within which she can make fantasies for little people. I play along—it's what I would have done as a child. It doesn't occur to either of us to build elaborate bridges or structures.

    Opal, too, wonders where to send Sydney after preschool. She is attracted to the low student/teacher ratios of private schools, but she has other concerns:

There are a number of highly regarded private schools in our area. But in most cases, their commitment to diversity is lim-


Excerpted from The Passionate Learner by Robert L. Fried. Copyright © 2001 by Robert L. Fried. Excerpted by permission.

Meet the Author

Robert L. Fried is associate professor of education at Northeastern University in Boston, and works with teachers and parents in schools around the country. Author of The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide, he lives in Concord, New Hampshire.

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