Compound interest: problem solving starts with engagement

When I was in second, biology was my least favorite subject. We spent a lot of time memorizing a bunch of meaningless words – variables, cause and effect, bacteria. What’s the fun in that?

I vividly remember when my feelings changed. My teacher started the lesson with a question: “Nearly 200 years ago, more women died in childbirth in hospitals than when babies were born at home. Why do you think this was happening?

“How was this possible in hospitals? I asked myself. My boredom dissipated when I carefully watched a film about Ignaz Semmelweis and this doctor’s discovery of how an ordinary chemical could eradicate a deadly communicable disease.

Today, as I help my grandson scrub his hands with soap and water, I am overwhelmed by this memory of being driven by the desire to know why. How to make children experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls to flowthat feeling of being so involved in a task that time flies?

For all students, it is difficult to learn when the questions asked do not have personal meaning. Biology started to become more interesting to me, for example, because the class discussion was about mothers.

But interest alone is not enough. Students must also be challenged – and have the skills to meet that challenge. If they don’t, they may become anxious or stressed. Or, if they are too clever and can solve a problem easily, they get bored.

In my research, I have found that when students feel engaged in science lessons – experiencing high levels of interest, challenge, and skill – they are more likely to report that science is important to them and to their future. If parents and teachers want children to pursue challenging projects that enhance discovery and creativity, we need to design meaningful problems that children don’t know the answer to, but have the ability to discover.

Do not suppose children struggling with homework are lazy.

Do encourage young people to explore the issues that matter to them. It took many years after Semmelweis’ discovery to understand what, in particular, about handwashing saved the lives of mothers and their babies, and many more years for doctors to adopt the practice. If young scientists decide to tackle some interesting puzzles, there’s no limit to what they could solve.

Barbara Schneider is John A. Hannah University Professor Emeritus in the College of Education and Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. She wrote this week’s UpBringing column for Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of Character Lab and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Sign up for Duckworth’s Tip of the Week – practical advice on the science of character – at characterlab.org.

Comments are closed.