Children Love To Learn. Get Out Of Their Way!

How did your children learn to walk, to talk, to feed themselves at an early age? Did you have formal lesson plans? Were you the driver, or did you simply help your child achieve her goals?

Why did your child learn those things? A large part of the motive is simply emulation. You walk and talk; walking and talking appear to be valuable skills. If you scratch your nose at every stride, your child will emulate that; if you use f-bombs, you’ll hear little echoes as surely as rain falls from the sky. Best to model that which you want your child to learn, then – and remember that they’ll emulate all of your behavior, including the unlovely bits.

Infants spend a lot of effort mastering those skills. We are in awe of adults who must undergo therapy to re-learn such skills; perhaps we should be more appreciative of the very hard work needed to master them in the first place. Young children really are geniuses; they are creative, playful, hardworking, and eager to learn. It is an error not to recognize the value and effort involved in what we call “play.”

The desire and aptitude for learning do not magically vanish at age 5 or 6; they must be squashed by schools which – as observed by Professor Richard Elmore of the Harvard Department of Education – are point-for-point exactly the opposite of what we know about how children learn best.

When researchers ask why some children do very well in school, and some very badly, they often discover “parental support.” I think if we examine the gifted among us, we’ll often find a playful attitude about reading and arithmetic, rather than rigid formality. When you ask such parents “what is your system?” they may invent a “system” to please you, but the truth is, they’re just engaged in a joyful process of communication with their children, ranging from counting toes as they diaper the baby, singing the alphabet song, reading books with the children in their laps, asking the child to set four places at the table, or five today because we have a guest – all sorts of little ways to “model that which you wish the child to learn”, none of which require advanced degrees, systems, or curriculum. Each child is different – even children who share the same parents – so how could there be One System To Rule Them All?

Every time I get into thinking that there is a difference developmentally between “basic” and “higher order” learning or between “learning the rules” and “forming their own thoughts” I typically run into a situation in which this model gets turned upside down– in fact, in terms of brain development and learning, infants and toddlers have to master hugely complex cognitive tasks just as a matter of “normal” development– learning language and interpreting social cues, for example– and we then assume, at some stage, that everything that children learn must be “taught” to them by some knowledgeable adult. What if we flipped this idea on its head and assumed that human beings are essentially learning machines, and that they are highly competent learners by the time they present themselves to us in formal learning environments and our job is to understand how they got there and to reinforce what they already know about themselves as learners. I have a suspicion that most of what passes for “teaching” in our culture is designed to slow down young peoples’ development as learners to a pace that adults can understand and control, rather than to capitalize on what learners can do. — Prof. Richard Elmore


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