Enjoying The Process Or The Reward

Posted on June 5, 2012

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If we want to promote of a love of learning (and that is essentially my only goal in education) we need to promote a love of the process, not a love of the reward.

I fell in love with learning again after college. My first startup was finally profitable and I had a little more time on my hands so I started try to learn to play the guitar and play golf. After a year or two of casually exploring these skills as hobbies I started to wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts on how to improve. I kept coming up with new ideas on how to get better and I had to test them out. It may have been some visualization that would help me hit a better golf shot or an idea about how to get a specific sound out of the guitar. It didn’t matter. If I had an idea, regardless of how good of an idea it was, I had to try it out to see if it would work.

Most of the time my ideas didn’t amount to much. I probably would have made more efficient progress if I had worked with an instructor, but I realized that the process of coming up with ideas and testing them out was actually what was driving me to practice so much. I didn’t even think about practice as practice, I thought about it as an experiment. I had to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Even if my hypothesis was wrong it would lead to more hypotheses that I had to test. The result was that I was loving practice. I was almost obsessed with it. And I got a lot better as a result, even if none of my ideas in particular were all that great, they led to a more nuanced understanding of the skill, which, with all the practice I was getting through the experiments, led to much greater overall ability.

Last year I had the realization that this whole process felt like I was trying to solve a puzzle. I was enjoying the process of learning more than the actual material I was learning. I didn’t want anyone to teach me how to do it, I wanted to figure it out on my own. I wasn’t interested in becoming the best golfer, I was interested in figuring out how to become the best golfer.

It’s this feeling of engagement, almost obsession, with learning and creativity and discovery that I feel now that I want my daughter to feel in her education. It’s why I’m focusing on puzzles as a way to approach learning. You don’t do a jigsaw puzzle to see the picture, you do it because the challenge is fun. You don’t do a crossword puzzle in order to see the completed crossword. You do it because the challenge is fun.

In education, though, we don’t think students will engage with material unless we hold out the carrot and stick of grades. We don’t think students will engage with material unless we give them a badge they can hold up at the end. With puzzles there are no grades, no badges, and yet we engage with them for hours on end and have done so for centuries.

I don’t want students to look at learning as a means to an end, a means by which to get a grade or a badge or even a job necessarily. I want them to look at learning as a way to grow and explore, as something they want to do for fun and leisure. I think this is the only way to ensure that students have the motivation to continue to adapt in a world that is rapidly evolving.

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