Monday, March 08, 2021

Experience and Freedom Matter

I'm suspicious of most research performed on children. For instance, there have been several studies released over the last couple decades that conclude that we can't expect children, and especially teens, to make good decisions. (Here's an article that links to a few of these studies.) The leading theory is that humans are simply designed that way, that our frontal lobes, the part of our brain scientists think is associated with executive function, isn't fully formed until well into our 20's. So, you know, the kids really need us to help them make decisions well into young adulthood.

I trust and respect the scientific process and these results have, more or less, been replicated. The essential findings are that the older kids get, the better they get at making decisions, which makes sense to me, because experience matters, but I have my doubts about how much it has to do with the development of the frontal lobe. Oh, I'm convinced that something goes on in our frontal lobes as we make decisions. We can measure the electrical and chemical activity. That's the evidence we have that our brains do the thinking: we can either determine what part of the brain is active under certain kinds of stimulation or that suppressing or stimulating certain parts of the brain can cause certain types of "malfunctions." From that evidence, most scientists believe that our brains are the seat of thought, but there is evidence that other parts of our nervous systems play a role as well. How much, we have no idea. Not only that, but as much as we know about the brain, no one has any idea how our brains really go about creating consciousness, or if, at the end of the day, they even do. There is a correlation between our brains and thought, yes, but we've yet to come up with a workable theory for how it happens, and until we do it is all little more than educated guesswork.

But even if we stipulate that our brains control and create thought, I still suspect these studies because they never tell us where they found the kids upon whom they performed their research. My strong suspicion is that since these studies have been conducted in countries that mandate childhood schooling, that the children being studied have spent a significant part of their lives in institutions that allow them scant freedom to practice making their own decisions. They have been conditioned to go where they are told to go, to sit where they are told to sit, to attend when they are told to attend, to learn what they are told to learn, and to queue up, shut up, and put up with whatever the adults tell them to do. And more often than not, when they do make their own decisions, they wind up being punished for it. Experience matters and most modern children spend their lives being taught to not making decisions. Is it any wonder that when suddenly placed in a position to think for themselves, like in these studies, their inexperience shows? 

I wonder what would happen if these decision-making studies were performed on children from, say, our hunter-gatherer ancestors or even children from the Middle Ages when schools weren't anything like the schools of today. I wonder if these scientists could replicate their results with unschooled children. As Carol Black writes in her remarkable essay A Thousand Rivers:

Around the world, every day, millions and millions of bright healthy children are labelled as failures in ways that damage them for life. And increasingly, those who cannot adapt to the artificial environment of school are diagnosed as brain-disordered and drugged . . . It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children's behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

I've spent most of my adult life around children who are not in school as we know it. I've known many, many teenagers, including my own, whose decision-making ability is superior to most adults I've known. I've known preschoolers who I would trust above the average man-on-the-street. That's because these are children accustomed to making decisions, who are experienced in decision-making. They have made plenty of mistakes, of course, but as Oscar Wilde wrote, "Experience is the name we give our mistakes," and when it comes to decision-making experience matters. 

When I read about these studies that purport to prove that children are somehow "scientifically" inferior to adults, that "show" that we are right to control and command them "for their own good," I think of those orcas living in the unnatural habitat of Sea World. School is an equally unnatural habitat for children. What would these studies show if only we would set our children free?


"Teacher Tom's Second Book has once again captured his profound understanding of children. His stories and insights are not only thought provoking, they are full of compassion, respect and hope. This is a must read for everyone who lives with, or works with our precious young children." ~Maggie Dent, parenting educator and author. To order your own copy of Teacher Tom's Second Book or Teacher Tom's First Book, click here.

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