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The Secret to More Engaged Learning


Late last week, my 14-year-old was struggling with a geography assignment. From my perspective, it was a fairly simple task. Read the textbook, review the questions in the workbook, pick the appropriate sentence to pluck from the text and enter verbatim, and it’s done.

That is not how my son viewed the task. I sometimes forget that I am unusually analytical. Scanning texts is not the most engaging way to encounter history and geography, but it’s low energy investment on my part, and, I thought, a simple way to make sure my kids weren’t just skimming the text.

What I did not take into account is that my son is not particularly analytical. That means that what appears easy on my end is endlessly frustrating on his. Worse, the frustration he was having could easily have led him to believe that history just isn’t his subject area. Thankfully, while discussing the assignment, he gave us a key piece of information that helped identify what was really the problem. It was boring.

Here is where you say something about how school isn’t all fun and games and sometimes work is boring but you have to do it, and other Stoic mainstays. But that is avoiding the real issue. While some things are genuinely a slog, history should never be one. It’s a story. Stories are inherently interesting. If it is history, it is because someone thought the people and events were interesting and significant. And yet textbooks have an uncanny ability to make fascinating people and riveting events dull as dishwater.

I should have known this. I really should have. This is a prime example of trying to take a shortcut and driving twice as long. And I should have known this because for years I have preached to anyone who would listen about the wonders of Living Books.

Just what is a Living Book? Thank you for asking. Living books are one of the cornerstones of education according to pioneering educator Charlotte Mason. They are books which are well-written, as well as well-illustrated if there are illustrations. They are not “twaddle”, the kind of ephemeral trash that offers neither beauty nor complexity. They touch on subjects worth considering. And, as the name implies, they bring those subjects to life.

We had been reading aloud a number of books set in the Middle Ages last year as we explored that period of history. My son noted that he had learned far more about the last Saxon king of England from one of those books than any text or lecture he had consumed. And, quizzing him on some of the significant dates and events, he was quite correct. Tucked in an engaging story about a young man caught up in the events that lead to the Battle of Hastings, my son had absorbed and retained large amounts of history and geography.

That’s the power of the living book. It can make any number of areas of study, from history to maths and sciences, interesting, engaging, and “sticky”. If you are dealing with a reluctant or discouraged student, consider looking to see if the material is as lively as it could be, and if it isn’t, look for living books to fill in the gaps.

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