3 Ways to Sabotage Lifelong Learners

Charlotte Mason Method Homeschool Real Self Education

We talked last time about how learning is a continuous process. It’s something that should happen your whole life. And if you use six Charlotte Mason methods, you can educate yourself on many, many things without depending on a teacher or a class. You can and should self-educate.

But sadly, for some adults self-education holds little appeal. Perhaps you find yourself in that group and you’re not sure why. For some reason, when you hear about intentionally learning something new as a grown-up, you have no desire to do so. Where did the motivation go? What happened?

My guess is that what used to motivate you when you were in school is no longer around. You were probably motivated by one, two, or all three common practices that are still used today in many schools—including home schools. Maybe in yours.

You may not even realize how those practices can sabotage a person’s desire to learn for himself. So let’s talk about them.

These are three practices that downgrade knowledge. They send the message that knowledge is not valuable in itself; it is only something you acquire in order to gain what is considered more important.

1. Putting the emphasis on grades.

Circled letters at the top of your papers in red ink. Report cards sent to your home. Those five letters, with their plus or minus, soon become the main focus in school.Discussions become less about What did you learn? or What did you enjoy about this study? and shift to What grade did you get?

Somewhere along the way you learn to perform what is required in order to get a respectable grade. But the emphasis can so easily become earning the grade, rather than embracing the knowledge.

“If you think that the sick fear of not getting an A grade is a lofty means of motivating the child to excellence, I beg to differ. On the contrary, many children fall into a trap of failure, and they try less and less. Others worry more about the grade than about actually learning anything for its own value or for their personal need. They are always focusing on what it looks like to others, rather than on the interest of what they are reading about” (Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake, p. 68).

Grades won’t motivate a person past college. Once you’re out of a formal classroom setting, that motivation is gone. And if you’re used to trading knowledge for grades, there is no more reason to seek knowledge.

If you want to become a lifelong learner, you will need to break free from the earning-a-grade mentality. Those five letters have nothing to do with true learning.

2. Fostering competition.

Another common practice, that can actually stifle a love of learning, is competition. Pitting one person against another to see who can achieve more or achieve faster detracts from what should be the real goal: knowledge.It’s like the difference between eating a piece of pie at Thanksgiving—enjoying the flaky crust and savoring the delicious flavors—versus a pie-eating contest. It’s still pie, but the focus has changed. Now instead of enjoying the pie for its own sake, it has become just a means to an end. Shovel it in as fast as you can in order to beat the other guy.

Sure, competition may motivate a person to accomplish a task, but it puts the focus on the wrong goal and, in education, it degrades the role of knowledge. Education is not about using knowledge to compare yourself with someone else, it’s about feeding your mind so you can grow as a person.

“Of course, at some point we all have the uncomfortable test of measuring ourselves against others. . . . But let us try to keep the true spirit of education alive as long as possible. Let us help the child gain skills really well for his own sake, not because of what somebody else can or cannot do” (Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake, p. 68).

Competition won’t usually motivate you to learn as an adult, because contests for adult learners are few and far between. If you want to start self-educating, you will need to shift your thinking to gaining knowledge for its own sake.

3. Offering prizes.

The third practice that downgrades knowledge is offering prizes for learning. Have you ever watched a toddler go through her day? Young children are born with a natural curiosity; they want to learn about everything around them. From the time they get up in the morning until the time their heads hit the pillow at night, they are exploring, observing, experimenting, taking it all in and processing.I’ve never seen a toddler who had to be bribed to explore, discover, and learn. They do it because gaining that knowledge gives them personal satisfaction. They love knowledge for its own sake.

Somewhere along the way, though, well-meaning adults decide that they need to offer a trinket to reward learning. When that happens, they (hopefully unintentionally) send the message that knowledge is not reward enough in itself; the prize becomes the goal. A shift begins to happen in the child’s thinking. Knowledge becomes just a way to earn the prize.

Yet once again, prizes cannot continue to motivate a learner for his whole life. It is rare that you will see adults receiving prizes for learning. Self-education is based on the mind-set that knowledge is a prize in itself. Reignite that personal satisfaction that comes from knowledge gained and you will become a lifelong learner.

Lifelong Motivation to Learn

It’s no wonder that some grown-ups struggle with motivation to keep learning. Think of how many years you were prodded along with those three emphases: grades, competition, and prizes. They were held before you as the end goal of learning, while that innate love of knowledge for its own sake was pushed aside, downgraded, and withered.

But it is not gone completely. It is not gone forever. Now that you realize how those substitutions have crept in, you can expose them and banish them. You can go in search of that natural curiosity that stimulates true learning deep in your heart, and you can nurture it. It’s still there, hoping to be fed.

And you can make sure that your child learns and grows in an atmosphere that cherishes knowledge for its own sake. That was one of Charlotte Mason’s primary goals for her students.

“The first thing that this school is designed to teach is a love of knowledge for its own sake” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 252).

Years of focusing on and working toward grades, competition, and prizes will not produce a person who loves to learn on his own for the rest of his life. Those are two opposite paths, and you can’t arrive at one destination if you’re heading toward the other.

“We are apt to work for one thing in the hope that we shall get another and a very different thing; we don’t. . . . We reap as we have sown” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 277).

Celebrate learning. Cherish knowledge. Rekindle that personal satisfaction that comes from exploring, discovering, and growing . . . for life.


  1. Yes! My mindset when I was in college was to get my degree and never have to go back. Now that I am educating my children, I have discovered a new love for learning for the sake of learning. I feel somewhat cheated by my public school experience.
    One of my children had been in a Christian school until the ninth grade. He had a difficult time adjusting to getting his term exams back without a “number” grade.
    Thank you SCM team for all that you do.

  2. So, if you and your children have had this happen, what are some ways to begin nurturing the love of learning again?

    • One of the ways to start fanning the flame again is to watch closely for any signs of curiosity and feed it.

      Consider areas of interest and find good living books and resources that are written by someone else who is interested in that.

      Incorporate into your school at least one study that isn’t graded; try to select a study that could pique interest. So if you’re adding a picture study for a few weeks, try to select an artist whose works look like they might be interesting to you and your children. You may want to ease into it, perhaps studying that artist for just six weeks rather than twelve the first time you try it; or you might spread it out more, doing a picture study every two or three weeks rather than every week at first.

      Fire needs oxygen to burn, but a small flame can be extinguished with a sudden gust of wind. So don’t panic and try to do too much at once. Look for those flickers of curiosity and carefully fan them without overpowering them.

  3. This makes so much sense. My son decided to try public school and it was a struggle for 2 1/2 years. He is now deschooling and I hope to rekindle his curiosity over the summer. The public school system essentially operates on these three pillars. It’s a losing game for everyone. The high grade earners just don’t realize it yet. They are being groomed for the mundanity that comes next- 4 more years of cramming for the test. I would rather my son not go to college, and have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, than to become numb to the joy and pleasure of the process.

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