Learning without knowledge

First birthday

First birthday

Earlier this week the television was on as I was getting ready for work. I wasn’t taking much notice as the voices droned on. I was lost in my thoughts of what needed to be done, what I’d be doing at work, which illustrator I’d choose to win my design contest, what I’d write about next, what I needed to get at the shops on the way home from work . . . the usual clutter.

Suddenly the words “they don’t even know they are learning” drew my attention to the television. I paused to see what they were talking about. The image showed children of about three years of age in a child care centre. The children were counting as they walked along stepping stones laid out in a path!

Kids' Work Chicago Day Care

Kids’ Work Chicago Day Care

Remarkable? I didn’t think so.  Children were happily engaged doing what comes naturally to them: playing, having fun, making sense of the world around them. Pre-school children will naturally join in the fun of counting and learn to do so without structured lessons, with just an attentive adult who encourages it incidentally in daily activities. I have made a few suggestions here and here.

Easter Egg Patrol

Easter Egg Patrol

What I think is far more remarkable (worthy of discussion) about those words is the insidiousness of the thinking that underlies them and what that thinking implies.

“They don’t even know they are learning!”

This to me implies that learning is something that:

  • children don’t want to do but “we” expect of them,
  • children won’t do unless it is “hidden” in sugar-coating,
  • must be planned for in a structured program and done to children by adults,
  • fits into a narrow band of skills and abilities with easily identifiable criteria that can be measured, and
  • is definitely NOT fun!

Perhaps more insidious is the implication that it occurs only in those situations.

CoD_fsfe_Checklist_icon

Children are born to learn. Their every waking moment is spent figuring out how the world works and what they can do to have their needs met. They are born scientists. They have an innate desire to know. Why one should think it remarkable that children are learning, but they don’t even know they are doing so, boggles my mind.

Anyone who has spent any time with young children know that learning is what they do. They can spend hours absorbed in a particular activity figuring out how something works, how things fit together, what happens when and if …

As soon as an adult intervenes in an attempt to “teach” something that seems appropriate and important to the adult, the child switches off, disengages and chooses another activity.

That’s not to say that the adult shouldn’t intervene to support a child’s learning, but the adult needs to be sensitive to the child’s needs and responses and to not force the situation to one in which the learning may be more important to the adult than the child at that moment, when the child is doing very well on its own, thank you very much.

The article I refer to was broadcast on April 1st. An April Fool’s Day joke? Sadly, not. But if we fail to honour children’s natural curiosity and desire to learn and continue to value only that which can scored on a test, I fear we will develop a multitude of fools.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

First birthday: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34547181@N00/6979867095; http://photopin.comhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Kids’ Work Chicago Daycare: http://www.flickr.com/photos/130419557@N06/16158455502; http://photopin.comhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Easter Egg Patrol: http://www.flickr.com/photos/98856605@N00/250708277; http://photopin.comhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

25 thoughts on “Learning without knowledge

  1. Bec

    Wow, a very powerful observation Nor. I wonder how much of the insidiousness of this perspective rubs off onto the children? I can think of several occasions where I’ve heard an adult jokingly tell a child something along the lines of ‘I bet you can’t wait for the holidays’ as if learning things is as droll as a job. How sad. Though I do understand many schools can make learning out to be that way… But you’re right. Why should children NOT want to learn? How absurd. Something surely is amiss.

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  2. writersideup

    What you say is true, Norah. The thing I glean from this, more than anything, is that it makes it obvious that, for many children, their desire to learn—their wonder, their curiosity—fades. It’s how to keep them hungering for more and more knowledge that is the true challenge. Once it becomes “boring” or a “chore” it really defeats it : /

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  3. Christy Birmingham

    I am glad you turned your mind to the TV Norah so that you could be inspired to write this post 🙂 I am an avid learner but know many people who see it as being boring, tiring, or other negative attributions. Let’s turn that around and keep learning fun for all ages 🙂

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  4. Marigold

    I completely agree with this!!! And this is exactly what I’m learning now in my grad dip education degree – encouraging students to be actively learning. We can’t force-feed kids, because then they’re only ‘learning’ in the sense that they can regurgitate what the teacher wants. True learning has to be deeper than that.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Marigold. I am so excited to hear that you are learning about this in your grad dip course. I hope you have the freedom to apply your knowledge when you enter the profession. Have you had any “prac’ (can’t think of the new name now) yet? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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  5. Ula

    I love this post, Norah. And I completely agree with you.
    My son will soon be six and starting school in the fall. I have watched him grow and learn, and he is very curious and loves learning. My husband and I have a philosophy that we have been following since he was born that he will lead the way in how he needs to parented. We really try not to intervene (too much) or rush his development. We figured we need to continue with this approach and in the fall, he’s starting a democratic school. Democratic schools use the fact that children are curious and love to learn and lets them be in the driver’s seat of their education. In democratic schools, children learn thematically. I think my son’s education process will be much different from my own.
    I really enjoyed school. I liked learning. But I agree that learning should not be seen as something kids do not want to do or something that needs to be sugar-coated. When they are allowed to explore their curiosities (with guidance), kids learn so much. They know they’re learning and they love to learn.
    Wow! I just wrote a lot. Hope you don’t mind.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Ula, I am delighted you wrote so much. I always appreciate the value of other’s thoughts, and when they are as lovely as yours there is definitely no need to apologize.
      i’m excited about what you have said about your son. I love that you and your husband made such positive decisions about his learning and development.
      I’d love to hear more about the school you have chosen for him. Is it based on Dewey’s philosophy? I did attempt, long ago, to set up an alternative school with democratic principles and with definite Dewey influences.
      I’m pleased you enjoyed school, and i look forward to hearing about your son’s experiences. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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      1. Ula

        I don’t know what philosophy(ies) it’s based on to tell you honestly. I like the fact that in a democratic school, self-initiative and self-responsibility are practised and developed. What I also like is that the students in this school get exposed to many different subjects from a very early age. At this school that my son will go to, they have dance and movement, various types of art and music, several languages, swimming, etc. in addition to the core classes. Of course, they get to choose what they participate in and are able to make suggestions and requests. It’s a small group of students (since it’s a small school) so they get to be around kids of various ages. He’s in a Montessori preschool/kindergarten right now, and I would say that is the biggest advantage.
        I may be participating in an alternative education workshop in May, so maybe I’ll learn more. I’ve worked as an educator, but at the university level, and that’s whole different beast.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Ula, thank you for coming back with that extra information. The school sounds wonderful. I like the idea of small numbers of children and of mixing with children of different ages. It is a much more “normal” situation than the institutionalized way of putting large numbers of children of the same age together.
          I will be very interested to hear your ongoing thoughts about his enjoyment of school and of his learning development.
          The workshop on alternative education you plan on attending in May also sounds interesting.
          I wish you all, all the best. I think you are in for a wonderful learning experience. 🙂

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  6. Annecdotist

    I loved the hint of anger in this post, Norah, and I also felt your sadness that some believe young children need to be tricked into learning. Even five minutes in the presence of a child who is free to play as they wish should convince those people that just isn’t true. The world needs people like you to keep banging away at the message.

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    1. Norah Post author

      A hint of anger? I guess that’s true. Frustration at the very least. And definitely sadness. I like your description of “tricked” into learning. That is a great way of expressing it. I seemed to be tiptoeing around the word I needed but never quite hitting the spot. Thanks for encouraging me to keep banging on. I don’t need a lot of encouragement. I probably need you to tell me when enough is enough! 🙂

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  7. macjam47

    There is nothing more rewarding than watching a young child figure something out on his/her own. Why some parents feel they need to intervene and teach a child “the proper” way is baffling. Children learn through play, experimentation, and curiosity. If you allow this, they don’t need to be entertained, taught, or placated. Parents hover too much. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t join in and play with their children, but when they do, they need to let their child lead and reinforce their child’s accomplishments – by praise or any means that confirms their pride in their child’s creativity and knowledge. This reinforcement can be verbal, but think how proud a young child is when a parent takes a photo of his block castle or displays her drawings on the refrigerator. When parents build the perfect lego building, or color the picture perfectly, they are teaching the child that their efforts are not worthy. Play, but let them lead and they will thrive. Children love to learn.

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    1. Norah Post author

      That is such excellent advice, Michelle. Thank you for sharing. it. Yesterday my little granddaughter came for a visit and she brought a beautiful blue painting she had made for me: https://norahcolvin.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/img_4493.jpg
      My favourite colour with glitter and stars.
      I hung it beside my print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night: https://norahcolvin.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/img_4494-e1428312558608.jpg
      She was delighted. I told her that it was an original and the other one was only a print, and made sure she showed everyone. She was delighted. As you say, that appreciation of efforts is very encouraging (whatever the age) and children (of all ages) love to learn!

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      1. macjam47

        Norah, your granddaughter did a beautiful job and it looks grand next to your Van Gogh print. When my sons were little I framed some of their work and hung it on the walls of my entry, where it remained throughout their school years. I still have them.

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        1. Norah Post author

          I’m glad the photos showed up. I haven’t checked them out yet!
          It is lovely to display their work. I remember when my daughter was little we had an art gallery (all her originals) in the hallway. It was lovely. I don’t have them all, but I did put a lot of her work into a “treasure chest” for her to take when she is ready.
          When my son (granddaughter’s dad) was looking around the shelves last night, he noticed a clay head he had made in year 8 and told me that I didn’t need to keep it anymore, that it didn’t mean anything to him. I guess for him it was just another one of that school tasks that had to be done, but it was given to me as a gift, so on my shelf it sits to get dusted along with all the other treasures (on those infrequent occasions when dusting gets done!)

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  8. TanGental

    In a way I wish I’d read this as my kids appeared. It’s bloody obvious of course but, as with the parents Hope mentions in her comment I understand the urge to help, to encourage to direct. Each of those has its place but the urge to channel and direct is strong when one is bombarded with the idea that the world is competitive. Free play which is what I did with my brother is so important in so many ways and gradually I think we understood it but it wasn’t natural as a new parent.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Making decisions as parents is difficult. There are no rule books. There are lots offering advice, but it often conflicting. Sounds like you and your brother had it good with free play, but sometimes repeating what the previous generation did can produce its own set of problems. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  9. Nanny Shecando

    I LOVE this post (and so glad this is the post I happened on when I finally popped back in to catch up on everything Norah Colvin). I completely agree, children will learn with almost anything they do, and readily so. They crave it. I’ve been carefully negotiating these two mentalities with my nanny kids parents, who are insistent that their children should be doing more formal “learning activities”. It’s a shame because the kids don’t want to do that in the afternoons after school. They want to continue planting their apple core seeds in the garden whilst chatting to me about the sun and the rain, and watering plants, with the 4 year old counting the seeds beside me and the 7 year old telling me to remind her to “put the spade away when she’s finished” because “we need to pack away when we’re done”. They don’t want to go and sit inside and do the extra homework books their mother bought, on top of their work at school, their home readers and their golden words sight words that they already do happily. To them the extra work books are boring and unnecessary. They enjoy learning in their every day activities with me, so it’s a shame that their parents don’t recognise the learning potential within those same impromptu activities.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for popping over, Hope, and leaving such a lovely reply full of good sense and wisdom. I like your idea of learning through everyday activities. It gives the children space to think their own thoughts and come up with their own ideas. After sitting in school doing someone else’s bidding, doing their set homework activities etc, it is nice for them to have that “time out” for their minds to contemplate what they have been doing and learning, and make sense of it all, make it their own. If we are constantly filling them up, it doesn’t give them time to do that. Your “parents” don’t realise how lucky they are to have you caring for, and educating, their children. They know they are lucky, just not how much. One day they will realise. Keep up the great work! 🙂

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