Friday, September 18, 2020

It's the Difference Between Freedom and Captivity

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some fine, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

A group of us kids once broke away from our families while on a beach outing and began scrambling on the some rocks above the waves until our parents were mere dots below. We began challenging one another to climb higher and higher where we discovered a small cave and, miraculously, growing from an unlikely patch of soil, was a fig tree heavy with fruit. It was an isolated perch with a sweeping view of the Aegean Sea. We were, however, not the first to have found this idyllic place. Someone had built a small fire just outside the cave. We wondered, our hearts racing, if that person lived there. Had we invaded their home? Would they return to scold us or worse? This led to the group of us, four boys and a girl, to imagine that maybe we would live there. We each picked out where we would sleep, argued about how we could restart the fire, discussed the possibility of learning to fish, made crude furniture from rocks, and ate a feast of figs. There was the challenge of figuring out where we would defecate, finally deciding that we would have to climb back down and poop in the sea, where the water would wash us clean. We figured we needed weapons to protect ourselves from potential intruders and antagonists, so we fashioned spears and swords from the fig tree's cast offs. 

We stayed there, planning our utopia for an hour or more, creating a new civilization, until we finally grew restless and climbed higher. We balanced on ledges no wider than our hands, the waves churning against the cliff face far below. A slip would have killed us, a fact that we only discussed amongst ourselves having achieved a paved roadway that ran along the bluff. We guessed correctly that the road would lead back to our beach, where we discovered we hadn't been missed.

Education involves learning and learning involves, as far as we can tell given the state of the art of neuroscience, a change in the strength of synapses in small circuits of neurons. In short-term memory, that change involves the enhanced release of a neurotransmitter. Long-term memory, which is what educators should be more interested in, requires the release of a neurotransmitter accompanied by the growth of new synaptic connections between two cells. This is certainly not all that is involved in learning, despite what some scientists assert, because if we've learned anything by studying the brain, it's that there is always something fundamental we still don't understand.

For instance, the current orthodoxy holds that long-term memory is induced by repeated association of stimuli, which causes many to believe in rote learning, but that doesn't account for brains that shut down out of tedium or those memories preserved from childhood, which are, as Dostoyevsky writes, "the best education." Those were one-off events so profound that they permanently changed who we are. Of course, we have these experiences throughout our lives, but the ones from childhood, because they happen early in life, are the ones that most shape and inform who we are and who we become.

I'm not the only one who has discovered that when you invite adults to share their fine, sacred childhood memories, they almost invariably talk about being outdoors, with friends, unsupervised by adults, and without a schedule. That this is the ideal learning environment for young children seems obvious, even as most schools are bereft of all of these features, although, admittedly children sometimes wind up befriending their fellow prisoners. It's not surprising that few of us have fine, sacred memories that were formed in school.

It's the difference between freedom and captivity. 


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Technorati Profile