Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Most Natural Thing In The World

Learning is the most natural thing in the world. It's an irrepressible part of being alive. From the moment we come into the world, and even before, the human animal takes in sensations and converts them into thoughts, ideas, theories, and understanding. It's as automatic as breathing. It's as individual as fingerprints. It's more relevant than the front page news.

There was a time in history when we, as a species, understood that, when we stepped back and allowed our young to become educated. We knew our role as important adults in a child's life was to provide food, clothing, shelter, and love. The adults role modeled, of course, by living their lives of gathering with a bit of hunting thrown in on the side. Becoming educated was vitally important. For the sake of survival, each member of the band needed to pretty much learn the entire canon of human knowledge, from how to predict the weather to how to respond to predators. Everyone had to learn what was edible and what was poisonous; how to track and kill prey; how to manufacture and use tools; and all the other whens, wheres, and whys of their lifestyle. These early Homo sapiens did not specialize the way we do now. We tend to think of them as cognitively beneath us, but by any measure each individual knew much more about their world than individuals do today.

Without the capacity to learn, and to learn a lot, we would have long ago joined the ranks of the extinct, but our distant ancestors understood enough about how we learn to leave it alone, and let it unfold the way nature intended. This is something else about which those early humans knew more than we know today. They knew that all real learning is self-directed, something we've collectively forgotten, even as our science proves it to us. Instead, we behave as if we can one up Mother Nature.

We intervene and compel. We make lists comprised of one-billionth of one percent of all there is to know and strive to force it upon children whether they like it or not. When they object we punish them. When they struggle to learn what we want them to learn we label them failures. We imprison them in schools for the first decades of their lives, mandating whens, wheres, and whys that may or may not be connected to the lives the children will lead once they're "free." And when their irrepressible urge to become honestly educated emerges, we beat it back, telling them to sit down, to be quiet, and to focus on material that is as meaningless to the child as motes.

Indeed, when a child's irrepressible urge causes them to take an interest in anything outside of the narrowly proscribed box of what we've determined to be "education," which in recent decades has been more or less narrowed down to math and literacy, we use it as a lever to control them. Can't sit still? No recess! No drawing pictures until you've finished your homework! Only children who pass this test get to go on the field trip! When they object, when they cry or fight or tantrum over our insistence that they toe the line in the name of "Education," we try to externally motivate them by taking away the things they are internally motivated to learn. 

I know the history of how we got here. I know it's a road paved (mostly) with best intentions, but from start to finish it's been a fight against the most natural thing in the world. This is why we've come to believe that learning is hard. It is not hard. It is as automatic as breathing. It's as individual as fingerprints. And it's more relevant than the front page news. What's hard is compulsion. What's hard is obedience. What's hard is to have your own motivation supplanted by carrots and sticks.

Our responsibility is to provide children food, clothing, shelter, and love, then to trust children to direct their own learning. This is the most natural thing in the world.

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