Explaining the Concept of Enthusiasm to Children

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Enthusiasm Meter: Here is a test of how enthusiastic one is about learning.

Ask yourself, which would you rather do?

  1. Sit down at a computer and memorize rote multiplication tables until you get them perfect, or;
  2. Go into a garden to see what we can find, to investigate nature, and learn how to learn?

For most people and kids, option two sounds a lot more interesting. Yet this is a trick question, which requires the recounting of an experience in inner city schools.

A volunteer assistant teacher visited an inner city school of elementary students for the first time. It is located in San Francisco, in a very rough neighborhood. The class was packed, the kids were unruly, and the twenty-something female teacher spent most of her time trying to keep the kids from hitting each other. There was very little learning going on. It was more like trying to control a pack of wild animals, than sharing any learning experience. The volunteer was almost convinced he would be of little help to either the teacher or the students. Yet, he did have an idea.

In San Francisco, there is a beautiful botanical garden. The idea of the volunteer assistant teacher was to get the kids out of the stuffy classroom, into the beauty of nature, and get them to experience something more than the drudgery of their daily lives. He proposed his idea to the teacher and she said OK, but of course, a field trip would require permission slips from their parents.

The volunteer assistant teacher tried his best to get the kids to understand the offer for a field trip to the botanical gardens. The field trip would be the next day at this same time during the afternoon. He explained they needed to get signed parental permission slips in order to participate. He then handed out botanical garden field trip permission slips to all the kids, amidst the screaming, slapping, and noise of overwhelming mayhem.

Then a miracle happened.

The teacher said, “It is now computer lab time. Straighten your desks. Get calm and quiet. Get ready to go to the computer lab. You know the rules. Anyone not behaving properly does not get to use the computers.” It was as if she waved a magic wand. The class went immediately silent. All the students straightened their desks and stood beside them in a quiet and orderly fashion.

The teacher took the class down the hall to the computer lab, in silent procession, single file, with the assistant teacher following in amazement. The kids took a seat in front of a computer, turned it on, and began to play a game.

This was quite some time ago, so the game looked liked a version of the old “Pac Man” electronic video game with a slightly different twist. A mathematical equation of simple whole numbers appeared on the screen, such as “3 x 4 = ?” The object of the game was to get the little chomping Pac-man-like character to eat enough colored circles to solve the equation with the correct answer.

There was no way to lose this game because as long as the character kept chomping away it would eventually eat the correct number of circles. It was a vast improvement over sitting in class while the teacher has everyone repeat multiplication tables, such as three times one is three, three times two is six, and three times four is twelve ad nauseam.

After the school day was over and the kids all went home, the assistant teacher asked for an explanation of what made the computer lab so special. The teacher said the kids think is it a video game as a reward for being good in class. More importantly, they never could play other video games even they saw kids doing this in the arcades because most of the parents were too poor to give them quarters to waste on video games. She added, “Don’t be surprised if you are disappointed with the permission slips.” There was a hint she knew a lot more than she was saying and she might be much wiser than it first appeared.

The next day, not a single student had a permission slip to go to the botanical gardens. The kids had not even bothered to ask their parents. It became obvious that the reason was a trip to a garden, was far less interesting than playing the multiplication video game in the computer lab. The teacher suggested to tell the students the field trip would be in the mid-morning instead with the chance of ice cream involved and the class would be back in plenty of time for the “video game.”

The next day all the students were beaming with permissions slips in hand. It was a great day and they did enjoy the garden, especially the break for ice cream.

The Effect of Enthusiasm

The lesson learned from this true story is that it is not as important what the children are actually doing, but how enthusiastic they feel about it. Great teachers know how to create enthusiasm out of all kinds of things. They also know that learning significantly improves, when the emotion of enthusiasm engages.

Parents and teachers, who learn how to instill wonder and engagement in kids, are rewarded when they react enthusiastically and that is how they know they are on the right track.

The enthusiasm definition given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is that enthusiasm includes intense enjoyment, excitement, and interest in something. An enthusiasm synonym is also “engagement” in concepts, ideas, and activities, i.e. the wanting to participate. Therefore, we define enthusiastic behavior as behavior where a person is highly engaged in the situation.

This is why people who become deeply interested in something are called an enthusiast. hobbyists, those who like sports, even great thinkers who are deeply interested in what they become dedicated enthusiasts.

Gaming as Teaching

Rather than trying to explain the concept of enthusiasm to children, it is better to show them things in such a way that enthusiasm comes naturally. This works for things that when presented in other, one might call inferior, ways, enthusiasm may be lacking.

As reported by U.S. News, experts say that using games in classrooms are terrific ways to teach the core “STEM” subjects, which are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This works even with these “difficult” subjects, because the minds of the students are engaged from the way the materials are presented. In other words, it makes learning more like playing a game and that is a whole lot more fun. The marvelous results are that learning is enhanced as well.

When learning is more like a game, there is greater attention, greater retention, and the ability to form better and deeper understanding of the materials.

Innovation in education is coming from the areas where gaming and game theory are being applied. Just think about another example. Which is more interesting, 1) Playing a trivia game about adventures and exciting times in history, or; 2) Trying to memorize dates and facts from a textbook? Then, what if one learned, there are hidden clues to find a great treasure written throughout the textbook. Does that change anything? It all depends on enthusiasm.

This works for simple games as well as extremely complex ones. The complex gaming example given in the U.S. News report is the game called “Foldit.” This game solved a difficult problem found in AIDS research regarding how proteins fold. Scientists struggled with this question for years in trying to understand the structure of a virus similar to what causes AIDs that is found in monkeys. Gamers identified the perfect “fold” in a matter of ten days.

Infospace reports that the reason why gaming works so well in modern educational efforts is that the entire goal of education has changed from memorizing facts and developing rote skills to being able to solve complex challenges that use a much higher order of skills.

Fostering Enthusiasm

Oliver Wendell Holmes said having enthusiasm makes life worth living. Children naturally have it unless they have shut down from being harmed in some psychological way. This is because enthusiasm begins with curiosity and kids are naturally curious.

Inspiremykids has some great quotes about enthusiasm. One favorite is Einstein claimed no special talents except intense curiosity. Children instinctively know what that means. Just observe the reaction while seeing wrapped gift packages for the holidays. While having to wait until the proper time to open them, children demonstrate real enthusiasm. Learning something exciting and new can be just as interesting.

As we have seen, enthusiasm can be generated about almost anything. One student said, “I hate reading books.” Of course, he never read any of them. The wise teacher said, “You have not yet read the right book.” Then, the teacher gave the student a mystery book. The book was one of those page-turner kinds, where every page ends on a cliffhanger and it is almost impossible to put the book down once you start reading. After a few days, the same student came back to the teacher and said, “Got any more?”

For younger children, there is a great website called bedtime stories that gives stories about enthusiasm. Rather talk about enthusiasm to kids, let them discover it, and most of all, show your own enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious in a very good way!

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