To Hinder the Skill of Cramming

It’s the same every year. After the rush of December festivities there is that tiny six-day space to reflect upon the year passing and to anticipate the year ahead. In that small space there’s a certain stillness of mind, it’s brief, but wonderfully still and remarkably hopeful.

I’m sure you know the place, the place where we breathe life to resolution.

But here I am, well into January 2012 head spinning, wondering how I missed the respite of that space. Was it the ordinary bustle that craves my attention like the stomach flu? Was it four transitions looming—a daughter entering her final university undergraduate semester, a son preparing to graduate high school, another son preparing to enter high school, and my youngest son moving on to conquer middle school? Was it the back-to-school dash? Lesson Planning? Grocery shopping? Dust? Laundry?

Faster! Faster! Faster! Is this what life is to be?

So even though the six-day window has passed, here it is, for 2012, my resolution is distilled to a single word: Balance.

The potential of the dandelion is inherent to its essence. So it is with our children.

A quality elementary and secondary education provides abundant opportunities for each child to master skills—phonics, grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, math facts, grammar, historical and scientific facts, and so on­— that will allow for deeper exploration. But when foundational skills become the central objective of education, we sacrifice the promotion and development of curiosity.

Curiosity is the gateway to the labyrinth of learning.

Education that has no room for curiosity, is not only disheartening, it’s dangerous.

Curiosity and imagination are vital to the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well being of the child. Stimulating the heart, mind, and soul is essential to a full academic experience.

I firmly believe that educating checklist style promotes the skill of cramming.

Let’s face it. The skill of cramming is central to most academic pursuit.

Looking back, the prominent and dominant skill I gained during my pre-university education is the skill of cramming and I have spent the better part of the past 15 years developing ways to help my children and students at large avoid developing this habit of being.

If I am a bit of a procrastinator by nature, an overemphasis on foundational assignments cultivated that propensity.

How many times did I gladly push the stack of homework that lacked meaning deeper into my backpack and turn a blind eye so my curiosity might explore some wonder of the world?

And, if I am being honest, that “pushing aside” became habitual. And when something becomes habitual, it is a habit of being that is hard to break.

Traditional education promotes the skill of cramming.

Long ago when my 22-year-old daughter was 7 and began to display signs of boredom with school in the first grade, I was concerned that my little songbird who couldn’t keep her nose from a book would loose her passion for learning. I never thought that the magnet on my refrigerator really applied to me, until I began to worry for my bright-feathered Hannah, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Sure I appreciated the sentiment in theory, but in reality? Me? Trail blazer. Um, that was quite another matter.

But I took heed of Emerson’s sentiment, and machete in hand, have been fashioning a trial for the past fifteen years.

What I’ve discovered about foundational skills is that there is a profound purpose beyond face value. Foundational skills such as phonics and math facts and historical dates and reading comprehension and memorizing the periodic table, provide the student with skills that are necessary for the exploration that sparks curiosity. But they are also the best way to teach students how to hinder the skill of cramming. After all, we might pass a test we study for the night before, but we certainly will not retain the information and we definitely will not gain skills that benefit meaningful work.

I believe that the course of achieving mastery is just as important as the subject matter being mastered. I have found that students who establish a routine by embracing strategies and pacing studies instead of cramming, retain information, apply knowledge broadly, and enjoy the process of learning.

My job, as an educator is to help children master a great many foundational skills without overshadowing their ability to imagine possibility and to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge.

So how do we achieve this balance?


When it comes to learning, foundation should be balanced with exploration.

Inside the classroom guild, the student apprentice must learn to mix the paints and clean the brushes, but they also must be given ample opportunity to imagine the possibility of the canvas set before them.

So at the dawn of this new year I remind myself that I am Master Teacher, not Task Master, keeper of the List with a capital L and imagine the possibilities!

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