I have two children, one nine and a half years old and desperately waiting for his letter from Hogwarts. The other is 14 and about to move on to high school, but in the Harry Potter universe it would only be his fourth year– the best year– according to him. For the uninitiated, the fourth year is the Triwizard Tournament, and Cedric Diggory dies. Things really begin to get Young Adult in that book (and movie). Coincidentally, his favorite year marks the age he is right now.
And right now, both my children would score at the top of an exam asking questions about the Harry Potter universe. They would do it with pleasure as well as more detail than they would ever give any task related to ‘school’ work. Ask them about the differences between movies and books, and you would get multiple rolls of parchment longer than Hagrid is tall. Not only do they know trivia, and other minutia, but they can come up with continuity errors and comment on where JK Rowling may have had some logic issues about wand lore, and why Harry should be able to see thestrals in his first year at Hogwarts due to the fact that he watched his mother die when he was a baby.
I took a most challenging quiz on Dumbledore this weekend (Thank you, Pottermore), and found that even though I have read the series at least twice personally, much of the books aloud to my children, watched the movies scores of times, I couldn’t get better than 35% (yikes!). My interest in Harry Potter isn’t just a passing fancy because of my children. It’s a Thing. I have the Elder Wand in my office at work. The sign for Platform 9 3/4 is hanging near my desk chair. Hedwig, the Monster Book of Monsters, a Gryffindor scarf, and a poster dedicated to the fourth movie all adorn my office space. It is serious business for me. Friends and colleagues who know me and my love for the Harry Potter-verse are gasping at this news, but the questions were no joke. Or, I am just getting old and the pathways for the details aren’t as flexible as they used to be. Which leads me to talk about kids taking tests.
Entrance exams exist to separate out students. Give admissions folks something to compare, to review, to support reasoning why a student should or should not attend their fine school. Great. This example of my children (not great test-takers in case you are wondering) doing absolutely top-notch stellar work on multiple Harry Potter quizzes and non-stop discussions tells me something. It reminds me that children can and will learn anything because they WANT to. I remember as a student teacher (only about 25 years ago) being told not to use high vocabulary with the younger students. Their reading level was too low for the use of higher vocabulary. Balderdash. As long as there is interest in the content (true interest), four year olds can learn how to say, recognize, and spell complicated dinosaur names. Who hasn’t seen some very young child chirping away the names of dinosaurs like a paleontologist? Intrinsic motivation is what causes this kind of memory-enhancing super power, and it is the thing I like most about teaching and learning.
Intrinsic motivation applies to my sons and to any child who has soaked up any information or knowledge like a sponge. If intrinsic motivation (what I think some educators have renamed “voice and choice”) ruled schools, we would be a further advanced civilization than where we are today because of students doing deep dives into their passions and truly discovering who they are as a human, and what they are capable of doing.
I have witnessed schools encouraging intrinsic motivation and doing it well, but it is complicated since every student’s journey is a uniquely personal one, and how do you teach 20+ students on different paths to find what they are looking for? How do you guide them to find what sharpens their focus, holds their attention? Complicated. And there is no single solution, and schools still face the burden of making sure basic and intermediate reading/writing/math skills can be acquired. Yes, we agree on that. However, our attention to testing for the average is killing students’ innate desires for anything. Just tell me what I have to do to get the A. I have heard this too many times to count. I want to get out of the choke-hold of testing and achievement. We are unintentionally suppressing the growth of our children’s minds by not allowing them to nurture their passions while young.
I am ready for the future. Let’s let the children lead.