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We Know How to Learn, Until School Gets in the Way –
April 11, 2010
I’m often bemused to read how important it is that children “learn how to
learn.” It seems to be the phrase du jour among self-described progressive
educators, book authors, school critics, and those who promote ever-earlier
attendance at pre-school institutions. Some young children might be able to be
trained – in dog-like fashion – to sit still, listen, memorize and regurgitate.
Aside from the criminality of taking their childhood away from them, that
training has nothing to do with teaching them how to learn. It would be more
honest if we admitted that it’s a rationale for congregating kids in a
supposedly safe place so their parents can do other things.
Children don’t need to be taught how to learn; they are born learners. As I
wrote in my book Challenging
Assumptions in Education, we come out of the womb interacting with and
exploring our surroundings. Babies are active learners, their burning curiosity
motivating them to learn how the world works. And if they are given a safe,
supportive environment, they will continue to learn hungrily and naturally – in
the manner and at the speed that suits them best. In fact, you cannot stop young
children learning from everything they experience. They are always experimenting
with cause and effect. And they are always soaking up information from their
environment – learning to walk, talk and do many other amazing things.
Cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik, who is co-author of a research study
“The Scientist in the Crib,” says babies’ brains are smarter, faster, more
flexible and busier than adults’. Her research has confirmed that, contrary to
traditional beliefs about children, toddlers think in a logical manner, arriving
at abstract principles early and quickly. “They think, draw conclusions, make
predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments,” she writes.
The late Robert White, Harvard developmental psychologist, called this
instinct to learn an “urge toward competence.” What he meant was that we are
born with the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control the world
in which we live. We do not just sit and wait for the world to come to us
(unless we’ve been told to sit down, be quiet and wait). We actively try to
interpret the world, to make sense of it. Of course, this drive to discover
means we are constantly learning…and experiencing the pride that comes with
having learned. And it doesn’t stop with walking and talking; it continues
naturally as children learn to read, write, do what we call math, science,
geography, history and more.
If someone is enrolled in a school or a course and therefore required to
study a specific topic with the end result of remembering the contents of the
course, they will benefit from a variety of study strategies skills – tips for
organizing and memorizing data, reading efficiency and research techniques,
organizational habits, ways to bribe themselves to keep at it, and so on. At the
end of the school year or the course, these tricks may help the person remember
the material and score well on an exam. They may or may not remember the
material past that time frame, be able to integrate it into their understanding
of the world, and apply it to future situations. That is, they may or may not
have learned something, although we use that terminology to describe the
outcome. Ironically, these are the very skills children innately use from birth
and that school steals from them at an ever younger age!
Learning has been described as an art form. And yes, it might well be that.
But we’re born with the necessary talent. To think that a child needs to be
taught how to learn is an example of ubiquitous adult arrogance. Children need
time, space, love, trust and respect so they can develop their art. And then,
perhaps, the adults in their world might do well to sit back and watch them at
work…and unearth the talent that their own childhoods buried.