Five Ways Our Teens Can Love Learning Again

In our last post, we talked about why many Grand Rapids teens hate school.  Alternative schools or private schools are not an option for some families, so let’s talk about ways that our young people can come to love learning again.

The most important thing is to not equate learning with only school.  Humans, including teens, learn all the time in the real world.  In fact, what they may have difficulty grasping or memorizing in the classroom often comes much more naturally in real life.  Here’s how:

1.  Meaning, meaning, meaning.  When a young person loves something — whether it’s animals, swing dance, cars, investment, or a sport — it’s because that thing has meaning to him or her.  If a teen’s interest is horses, then everything related to horses makes sense to her — if she can’t make sense of it at first, she pursues it and asks questions until it does.  The teen is fully engaged — emotionally, physically, intellectually, socially, and even spiritually.

All humans learn best when information has a meaningful context.  Yet teens are asked to repeatedly solve math problems using abstract numbers, or to recall historical dates and events without a context that feels meaningful to them.  Study after study has shown that though some students may be able to memorize well for tests, they are not able to apply their learning in real-world situations, where things rarely look exactly as they appeared on the test.

Fortunately, Grand Rapids is full of interesting people doing interesting things.  The arts, farm-to-table restaurants, environmental projects, cars, community events, more community events, games of all kinds, sports — our city offers a wide variety for the passionate teen in your life.

Swing dancing
Making Meaning from Movement: One of our members loves her swing dancing class every Wednesday night. The constant movement both challenges her and relaxes her in a way that typical physical education classes don’t.

2.  Problem-solving.  Teens know that their day is coming — soon they’ll be working jobs, managing money, and making adult decisions every day.  And yet everywhere they go, they are judged on how well they follow rules, not on how well they solve problems. How will they learn to problem-solve if they never practice?

Whenever possible, we can ask teens to join us in problem-solving.  Whether we’re working on home projects, fixing dinner, creating a blog, or scheduling a busy day, we can “think out loud” with our process and ask for input from our teens.

In a similar vein, if our teens struggling with school, homework, bullies, or a social situation, we can ask questions, including, “is there something I can do to help?”  It helps if we remember to wait for their responses, rather than jumping in with ideas.  We can invite them to write down possible solutions (even fantasy solutions) and talk over their options.

Central Station in Downtown Grand Rapids: Problem-Solving and a Ticket to the City

Because Grand Rapids is such a rich community, it’s a great place to offer problem-solving opportunities.  Would your teen like to figure out how to take the bus from the mall to their home, or from Meijer Gardens to the Art Museum to Blandford Nature Center? (And can they do the latter challenge all on one bus fare?)  Or make a day of it and ride The Rapid together for fun — it’s a great way to see the city and chat with our neighbors.  This is just one way to help teens practice problem-solving:  we’ll offer more in a future blog post.

Fortunately, others in the community have recognized the need, and teens are being invited to problem-solve more often through area programs focused on larger social issues.  Still, more needs to be done, and attending workshops doesn’t always give the daily practice needed to think through everyday situations in the real world.

3.  Getting involved in the real world.  Teens often feel they are wasting away in the classroom, cut off from the rest of the world.  Since teens are very concrete thinkers, they need exposure now, not later, to what real life feels like.

College visits,volunteer opportunities (including the zoo and a summer therapy program), opportunities to shadow professionals (including in the growing health care field), travel (even to different Grand Rapids neighborhoods), part-time jobs, and fun projects — from cleaning up the Grand River to making a movie (like the Open Doors Slender Man project) — are all opportunities to experience the world, and all are right here in Grand Rapids.

A teen works with a young child at the Comprehensive Therapy Center

4.  Spending time alone when needed.  How often are teens encouraged to really think their own thoughts, particularly during school time?  Waking up early for school, participating in after-school activities, and doing homework often takes up an entire day that could be spent observing, considering, and dreaming about the future. Grand Rapids has many community spaces where a teen can wander and think her own thoughts:  the Main Library (which also offers fun activities), the Blue Bridge and other bridges over the Grand River, the Quiet Cafe at GRCC, Blandford Nature Center, the Calvin College EcoSystem Preserve, Johnson Park, and Schuler Books and Music, just to name a few.

Schuler Books has lots of quiet places for a teen to curl up and think her thoughts.

5.  Playing and learning with others.  As Peter Gray writes,  “Teenagers have always been attracted to public spaces where they can hang out with friends, find new friends, and talk endlessly with peers about matters that concern them, away from parents and other authority figures. Such gatherings are crucial to human development; they are how teenagers expand their social horizons, share views on issues that matter to them, experiment with different versions of their personality, and develop the sense of independence from parents and other adults that they must in order to become adults themselves. ”

Our teens crave unstructured time together to figure things out — let’s give it to them.  The Friday Night Skate at Tarry Hall, grabbing a taco at the Downtown Market, or many of the activities listed in this GRKids.com article will fill that need. At the same time, teens need their parents and guardians to stay connected in a friendly way.   In a 2009, only about half the teens surveyed by the Grand Rapids Youth Commission reported that their parents asked about their friends, checked their homework or had regular meals with them. “We want to let parents know: their kids feel they are important.”

Teens trying out ideas and talking about what matters to them.

Offering meaningful context, providing real-world problem-solving and experiences, and allowing for both reflective times and social times to connect with friends and family — this is what the Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens does.  We can help your teen love learning again, whether they stay in school or leave the classroom for a real education in the real world.

If you have other ideas for how to help our Grand Rapids teens love learning again, we’d love to hear them in the comments.  And if you and your teen would like to continue this conversation about how to love learning again, contact us.


We hope you’ve enjoyed another installment in our series, “Your Life — Your Learning!”  

With support from the Wege Foundation, Open Doors continues to explore what learning is and how it works (and doesn’t work) for the teens in the Greater Grand Rapids community.  Our hope is that more local teens and families will find tools for claiming their own learning on their own terms, whether they stay in school or choose to leave for an option like Open Doors.

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