Dean's Message

What drives learning? Excitement? Curiosity?

"Why do numbers go on and on, Mommy?" my 4-year-old daughter, Elissa, asked one night at bedtime. Surprised by the sophistication of the query and the fact that I thought Elissa had drowsed off to sleep, I was slow to answer.

Not to be ignored, Elissa, prompted, "That's called, 'nfinity,' isn't it, Mom?"

" That's right, honey, it is," I replied. "How did you know that?"
No answer from the bedcovers; I thought Elissa had gone to sleep. Then suddenly the little voice came again, "Why do people die, Mommy?"

This story has remained with me all these years, as fresh and compelling as it was when it happened. Elissa is now 17 years old and ready to enter college in the fall. She's always been a bright kid, but Elissa's wonderings and curiosity about mathematical ideas when she was very young are not that different from other young children. My colleagues who have researched the thinking of young children have documented that many preschool children wrestle with the ideas of the finite and the infinite even before they can give them a name. And even earlier: Babies as young as six months have been shown to understand mathematical ideas of quantity and counting.

Children come into this world bursting with ideas, curious, eager and ready to learn. Yet often when they get to school, children lose their excitement, curiosity and motivation. My daughter herself experienced this. Why? What can we do to change this situation? How can schools continue to nurture children's curiosity and connect with the excitement children bring to the classroom? How can we educate exceptional teachers who motivate learning? How can we design innovative programs that spark children's desire to learn? What theories of motivation help us understand what drives the behavior and learning of children, adolescents and adults?

In this issue of Inquiry, we address these questions. In "Lights, camera, action!" we visit a school in Florida where two graduates of our Learning Sciences Program use goal-based motivational theory and video scenarios to design authentic learning contexts for children. How one defines the learning context is important, whether it be with a project-based question or a concrete scenario. This point is brought home when we stop by "Joy Junction," where Revette Thomas, one of the graduates of our Alternative Teacher Certification Program, has "constructed" a place where her third graders love learning. "Project Excite" picks up on the idea of identifying bright children early and nurturing the talents and ideas they bring to the learning situation. This is particularly important for talented minority students, who often lose interest in school as they progress through the system. "From Accomplishments to Setbacks" describes how humans from birth to death are driven to shape their own development using goal setting and other strategies. And finally, we close with an essay by one of our alums, who offers some "Insight" into what happens to students' curiosity between preschool and college.

We hope that reading this issue excites your interest and sparks your own memories. If you have stories about what has motivated you or your children, please send them to us at sespalums@northwestern.edu or to Annenberg Hall, Room 242, 2120 Campus Drive, Evanston, Ill. 60208-2610. We'd love to hear from you.

Penelope L. Peterson, Dean


p-peterson@northwestern.edu

By Penelope Peterson