Seeing a hunger to learn

2My wife glanced over to the youngster clinging to his mother in the far aisle.

"He's just a normal boy."

She dismissed my judgment the child was in any way exceptional.

So I am a little crazy. But I still think I can see a hunger to learn in some kid's eyes, the manner they inspect the world, their "look."

Then in 1994, the PBS NOVA program ran a documentary, "Secret of a Wild Child." It is the sad story of a little girl, "Genie," who was isolated for 12 years in a dark attic. She had no interactions with the outside world. She had no one to speak to. She never learned to talk.

"There, that's the look," I shouted, for my wife to come watch. I pointed to the screen. This was the most extreme case of the "hunger-to-learn" look I ever had seen. My wife agreed. Anyone could see her intense desire to examine her new world. Even a grocery worker who knew nothing about Genie's background instinctively knew to give her something from his meat counter for her to examine.

Genie's hunger-to-learn look was an extreme case. Sadly, at the other end of the spectrum are a few children who express little curiosity about the world.

Teachers do not need to detect this hunger-to-learn from a distance. When we teach, we discover whether a student is eager and excited to soak up knowledge or must be led step-by-step without much inner drive to learn.

But Genie's story is worrisome. Researchers tried to teach Genie to speak. Most children hear language in infancy and learn to copy sounds. Genie was not exposed to language until after she was 12 years old.

Researchers long had known baby birds had only a short window of time to learn to sing. Now Genie's case confirmed there is only one "window of opportunity" to learn language in our earliest years. The brain cell networks that give us language must be stimulated to grow within this early window. If this window in time is passed, even the best language training at a later time never can grow those neurons. Genie never spoke more than a few hundred words. The "window" for learning this basic skill definitely is limited.

In a more general way, this is likely the case for other knowledge. Veteran teachers know students learn in fits and starts. It is a case of use it or lose it.

For instance, a person rarely becomes a lifelong reader unless they develop a love of reading in late elementary school: the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew mysteries and now Harry Potter.

Most scientists trace their beginning interest to curiosity to explore before the age of 10.

Timing is important. Students' lifelong interests often begin when a teacher gets them hooked on something special at just the right time in their life -- on something they had a hunger to learn. But the high number of college students (more than 60 percent) who change majors at least once, suggests we often miss those critical opportunities.

And time runs out. As I walk city streets and see the range of personalities, from the homeless digging aluminum cans from the trash to the "successful" businessman (who might be less than happy), I try to see the child in them. As young children, they all seemed so full of potential. But along the way, as their hunger to learn was not met in so many ways, their interests in life never were developed.

I can see the hunger to learn in many children. But as adults, life narrows. They grow old beyond the reach of teachers. The window closes. They cannot go back.

As Henry David Thoreau said: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.