Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Natural born learners
Learning is an evolutionary trait.
So why do so many students give
it away at school?
Robert Fried in his book 'The Game of School' talks about the ideas of Evans Clinchy who is both an educationalist and also a scholar of evolution. Clinchy believes there is a link between the sorry state in education and the failure to learn the lessons of human evolutionary history. Clinchy’s principle contention is that we have become human beings because we have been so passionate about learning and that education has stifled the passion in so many of us. Too many classrooms, he believes, undermine the lessons of evolution, as indicated by the serious lack of 'engagement' of too many students. It seems we have not appreciated the implications of our own history.
Fried writes that young children, reflecting their ancestry, are hooked on learning by an intense curiosity of the natural world around them and are driven by the importance of acting as explorers,scientists and artists. Motivated by an irrepressible urge to share what they have discovered.
It is this drive to make meaning and express ideas that has always 'powered' human beings. Students today are no different. They too learn through their senses, and feel powerful when in possession of important information - wanting to tell every one about it.
This passionate drive to learn is subverted by organized school, based as it is, on a premise of ‘delivering’ standardized knowledge to students. Such 'transmission' teaching inhibits the hereditary instincts of intrinsic curiosity.
Curiosity, it seems, is fragile and is 'at risk' in preplanned environments that stifle spontaneity and ignore the student's need for personal and intense sensory learning. Secondary classrooms, in particular, have all but replaced this natural learning, and instead, students are 'corralled' and spend their day moving around a series of sterile rooms. Whatever ‘learning spirit’ students bring with them is soon lost for many of them as they begin to play, what Fried calls, the ‘school game’.
The 'industrialized' learning environment is no place for the ‘wild intelligence’ of youth except to subvert it to be destructive or subversive.
As a result 'learning power' is lost – the very power students will need to thrive in what will be an unpredictable and potentially exciting world.
It is developing this power that school should focus on. All students are capable of generating powerful ideas if they are faced with rich, real and relevant challenges -and not just as at present the lucky minority. Even the so called ‘successful’ students may well not be learning the real lessons that will enable then to face up to unknown challenges.
All students, Fried writes, are capable of inventing their own theories, be critics of others ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers and creators of their own personal marks, in this most complex world.
We have to stop this 'delivery' of preplanned learning to students and work with them to 'design' their own open ended learning challenges. We have to forget this obsession with measuring narrow 'achievement' and instead tap into the talents of every student and, if anything is to be measured, it ought be the learners love of learning for its own sake.
The challenge for teachers, Fried continues, is how can we reach those students schools have taught to be 'incurious'? How can we awaken those who have been dulled by the monotony of their schooling? How can we reactivate those who feel decidedly un-powerful or alienated?
More importantly how can we turn teachers back into passionate learners dedicated to learning along with their students; using their superior experience to develop personalized learning pathways and to guide students through difficult challenges?
There is no substitute for feeling empowered. We forget our evolutionary heritage to be passionate learners at our own peril.
Next time you see a two year old in action marvel at the facility they have to learn through enlightened trial and error; through their curiosity and their senses – and wonder where the natural desire to learn has gone for so many of our students.
And then consider what you could do about re-igniting it!