Acknowledging natural need to learn in a knowledge-intensive world

By Silvia Casabianca

I have stubbornly differ from the idea that children need external motivation – to be rewarded, punished or pushed – in order for them to study and learn. Instead, I think, we should follow their lead and move our educational endeavors in the direction of the children’s interests. This – and not anxiety-eliciting strategies – would facilitate learning.

The late American author and educator John Holt said, “…the anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.”

Observe youngsters while, for example, playing video games.

Or watch them learning all they want about their favorite singers or sports idols. Children easily develop on their own the necessary knowledge and skills to compete with each other without any adult’s “motivation.”

Sadly, the need to socialize, fit in a group and develop the necessary skills to fulfill their psychological needs of admiration and respect are manipulated by the market.

Education should recognize that we have a natural need to learn and we learn about the things that matter to us, because it’s a matter of survival.

More so nowadays.

Survival of the fittest

Darwin’s notion that only the fittest survive can be applied to everything that humans do. Babies learn to sit down, roll, stand up, talk and walk without anybody needing to prompt them. Processes, characteristics and behaviors that develop across childhood can be explained by a combination of biological forces (nature) and environmental conditions (nurture).

An inherited genetic code determines phenotype (physical appearance), while family, sociocultural factors, nutrition and physical activity influence development.

We learn best what we can. Nature endows us with certain talents and abilities that facilitate specific learning, and the educational system should be offering the opportunity for all to develop those gifts.

Our performance and creativity would greatly improve if we could feel comfortable and confident doing what we’re doing.

The world is becoming knowledge intensive

I agree with late management guru Peter Drucker who has said, “From now on, the key is knowledge. The world is becoming not labor intensive, not material intensive, not energy intensive, but knowledge intensive.”

But you instinctively know that. You urge your child to get a high school diploma and then attend college because you are confident that he or she will find better job opportunities if they have an education.

You also know that when you’re looking for a job, your personal value to any employer depends on your experience and training, in other words, on your knowledge.

But high-stake testing, that pushes students to devour and memorize content because college admission is contingent to SAT scores and grade point average (GPA) is not helping.

Are educators aware of the level of anxiety these tests create? Of the possible relationship between tests, fear of failure and aversion to school?

A child is by nature an explorer

Babies first explore the world by putting things within reach on their mouth. Then they crawl away and continue exploring by grabbing objects from the floor, they taste them, bang them, throw them trying to understand what they are about.

Infants learn to sit and stand up by a repetitive process of trial and error. Testing behaviors that give them –hopefully- what they want mark their interactions with people.

I believe we are to blame for spoiling the natural tendency of the child to explore the environment and learn from it.

We hush them down

With few exceptions, the three-year-old kid’s exciting whys from cute turn into a nuisance (‘cause we’re busy talking about “more important matters”) and we soon get tired of answering the endless stream of questions. We hush them down.

Then we go and nanny them with cartoons that start modulating their behavior (‘cause we’re busy doing “more important things”). And when they go to school, we basically tie them to the chair and demand focused attention.

Their particular interests are deemed a distraction in the class. We forget that all roads lead to Rome.

Curiosity could lead to learning opportunities

I once pictured a school where the kindergarten teacher would be wise enough to allow the child to run after the colorful butterfly strayed in the classroom.

Then the teacher could use the butterfly as a nice excuse to explain forms and colors, proportions, aerodynamics, gravity and symmetry (among other basic math and physics principles) in a natural and understandable way. And she could ask the children to make a drawing of the insect so that they could learn to express and represent the world in which they live.

But unfortunately our teachers are usually more concerned about complying with the school’s curriculum and methodologies that are mostly based on millenary scholastic theories. It’s not their fault; it’s a matter of survival for them too. In my experience innovative teachers who follow their instinct end up clashing with the system and losing their jobs.

Never before the ability to learn has been so important for people to survive in our increasingly complex, brain-based and technological economy. I don’t think that our society can be up to the challenge without seriously reforming education.

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