I don’t remember the last time I’ve read an entire book for pleasure. I recall checking out Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” only to return it because I just didn’t have the time. I kept telling myself that I would finish reading it one day when I got my life organized. The same thing happened with “Of Time and the River” and “The Last Days of Socrates.” Oh, and also “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I did finish “The Odyssey,” which was assigned by my English teacher. For me, reading has become so exclusively homework-oriented.
The problem here is that we are learning reactively rather than proactively. In other words, we are only reading and learning because we have to. When the homework is to summarize a chapter, I read through the chapter thinking about what key points I need to mention. Because of this, all the language turns into mere information ready to be summarized, and I don’t get as much enjoyment from the story.
Learning reactively limits both the range and depth of the knowledge and skills we acquire. When we learn with the sole purpose of completing a specific assignment, we are less likely to dive into further analysis of our readings or spend an extra 20 minutes on practice problems. Proactive learning, on the other hand, has no boundaries. We can look something up knowing nothing about it, and then end up reading more sources and learning much more than expected.
Learning is much less appealing when we think of it as an obligation. I love biology, but my enthusiasm goes right down the drain when I am faced with a five-page lab report. Rather than proactive and passion-driven, my efforts are reactive to grades. Consequently, getting 6’s in one class may lead me to spend less time studying for that class; if I’m doing fine in History, but my Math grade is slipping, there’s a good chance that I’ll spend more time practicing for Math. Although evaluations are helpful to a certain extent, and we should be proficient in all subjects, we should ultimately be able to specialize in areas of our interest, instead of studying based on how well we perform on assessments.
Our learning is relatively more proactive in the subjects we have more passion for — in other words, when we want to learn. I have always thought of proactive learning as simply pursuing curiosity. For example, simply looking up the pronunciation of “indicative” or the biography of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. No credit or points are given when I find the answers to these questions, but I do it because it’s enjoyable, and it satisfies my curiosity.
Proactive learning, however, is not just for bits and pieces of trivial facts. Nor is it just for the one class a student is most passionate about. I believe that we should apply proactive learning to everything we learn. Instead of thinking about completing homework due the next day, we should think about our education in a broader scope by relating the skills we learn to the outside world. A personal narrative in English class could serve as inspiration for a memoir later on in life. A lab report can be applied to data in a real-world scientific field. When we think of our studies in terms of the future, they adopt greater meaning than just “memorizing for Tuesday’s quiz.”
Personally, I would practice proactive learning by asking questions in class that may not necessarily be on a quiz or test, like discussing ethics in biology, or alternative ways to solve a math or physics problem. I also recommend periodically checking the syllabus of a class to remind ourselves what we are learning on a larger scale.
I hope students eventually realize that the point of finishing a history reading, typing up a lab report, or solving some math problems is far beyond simply completion. Homework is ephemeral, but we will all be learning constantly throughout our lives. At the end of the day, after that math test, after finals, after Andover, what really matters is what we have learned, not all of our completed (or uncompleted) homework assignments.