Learning naturally

Children get all worked up when adults observe them during classes. They put up a front and try their best to impress the visitor. High achievers take this opportunity to boost their pride by displaying special abilities. Average students try to catch up. Under-achievers usually shy away and feel that it is not important for them to make any impression on the visitor. This is what one would usually observe when visiting math, science, language arts, and social studies classes.

However, the dynamics of observer-student interaction is different in physical education, music, computer, and visual arts classes. Why is this so?

Different subject, different response

Somehow, the protective guards that students wear in core subject classes are dropped in non-core classes. For whatever reason, students look forward to non-core subject classes, although they are scheduled less frequently. Non-core subjects do not pose as much threat as do the core subjects. Students, regardless of performance level, feel a greater sense of control, want to show what they can do (regardless of how well they can do it), and feel less pressured to engage in social and academic comparison with their peers.

In parents’ mind, non-core subjects like computer, music, visual art and physical education are not as important as core subjects. The former do not determine the eventual success of students either at university or work. There are parents who require children to get good grades in core subjects and care less about performances in non-core subjects.

Herein lies the secret to unlocking the true potential of every student to excel in learning. Learning experiences that are characterized by high degree of freedom in pressure-free environment arouse students’ interest and motivation to learn, naturally. Hence students’ level of engagement in non-core classes is high, without any extra effort on the part of teachers.

Psychological basis

Psychologically speaking, the primary difference in educational experiences of students in core and non-core subject classes has to do with social and academic comparisons. This factor, coupled with a variety of other factors, give rise to differences in students’ responses toward learning.

Every student learns to compare him or herself with other students. Ideally, this comparison is done with someone, against whom students believe they should have reasonable similarity. Unfortunately, in the absence of such a benchmark, students use almost anyone to compare themselves and arrive at a conclusion of how good/bad they are.

Upward comparison occurs when students compare themselves with others who they consider to be academically better. Downward comparison acts in the opposite direction. For example, a university software engineer student who compares himself with Bill Gates (in software programming) is engaging in upward comparison. The same individual engages in downward comparison when he compares himself with a high school ITC student.

Obviously, both types have adverse effect on students. Students who engage in upward comparison feel disempowered to learn, while students who engage in downward comparison feel unchallenged and lose interest.

Implications

This is what happens in core subject classes. Social and academic comparisons in these classes are at the peak, at all times. Students know this and succumb to the norm to compare. In the end they learn for the sake of proving their self-worth to others.

On the contrary, non-core subject classes do not require such comparisons. Fortunately, grades for these classes are not as important. Hence everyone is relaxed and learn at his/her own pace. External pressures are removed and intrinsic motivation is high. Each looks at him or herself as uniquely and personally responsible for learning experiences and outcome. Because of this positive experience, students often surprise teachers with exceptional, creative performances/products in some of these classes.

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