Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Purpose Of Learning Is Joy

One of the big ideas behind play-based learning is that humans, and young children in particular, are learning all the time. 

When an infant lies in its crib watching shadows on a wall, for instance, we assume they are learning. We see their gaze, we witness changes in the movement of their appendages and we take that as evidence that they are learning. They don't need an adult to hang over them making silly sounds or to dangle a woodland animal mobile over their face in order for learning to happen. By virtue of the fact that the shadows are holding the infant's attention, we can surmise that the baby's curiosity is aroused, which is how the human learning instinct manifests. When the sun goes behind a cloud and the shadows momentarily disappear, we observe changes in the infant, their arms and legs stop moving, their eyes search, their gurgling momentarily stops as they try to understand, to find what is lost. And when the sun remerges, we once more see the changes, the evidence that learning is happening.

What exactly any individual infant is learning from those shadows on the wall is anyone's guess, and we would probably guess wrong anyway because the moment we try, we must put our guesses into words, and language is something a newborn hasn't yet acquired. There are no words for what that baby is thinking, so it is impossible for us to know what they are learning, and frankly, it's none of our business.

We waste everyone's time when we try to put a pin in learning, to assign a purpose to it. This is a concept that we adults often have a hard time comprehending, I think, this idea that not only is all learning deeply personal and individual, but it is also ultimately unknowable to anyone but the person whose curiosity and, therefore, thought is engaged. They may be able to tell us what they have learned or are learning, but most of the time, like with our infant, learning has no purpose other than joy and that cannot be turned into data.

We are born to seek joy and learning brings us joy, thinking brings us joy, understanding brings us joy. To the degree that we've made learning hard work is the degree to which we cheat children of their joy. 

That learning, in an evolutionary sense, makes survival more likely, is a happy accident, just as our opposable thumbs and capacity to cooperate with one another are a happy accidents. We don't possess these traits as a species for the purpose of survival, but rather they are traits that have survived within us. Survival itself is a happy accident.

We have evolved curiosity and the capacity to pursue the satisfaction of our curiosity, like we evolved hunger and the capacity to pursue the satisfaction of our hunger. And just as we don't survive without hunger we don't survive without curiosity. But in both cases, the urge, the instinct, is about pursuit and satisfaction, not survival; not utilitarian purpose, but rather the one purpose that really matters to any of us, which is to experience joy.

As adults we might make a decision to learn something for what appear to be utilitarian reasons. For instance, I might learn Spanish in preparation for a trip to Mexico. I make that decision to learn Spanish because I believe, based on what I've learned so far in life, that doing so will increase the odds of a satisfying trip. I am learning Spanish, therefore, because it is about my self-selected pursuit and the satisfaction of that pursuit. Even if the immediate satisfaction I pursue is a greasy buck, I must, at some level anticipate that this money will, somehow, some day, lead to joy. 

Otherwise, there is no point, and that is the path to depression. 

Should I presume to teach Spanish to a young child who has not chosen to learn it, I take curiosity, and therefore joy, out of the equation. I distract them from the shadows on the wall and force them to attend to my silly sounds and dangling woodland animal mobiles. When I do this, I cheat the child of their own, self-selected pursuit, which means, no matter how well-intended I am, leading them away from joy.

Curiosity is an imperative. It is one of the few universal purposes. It makes survival more likely, but survival itself is not a purpose. 

When we leave our babies to contemplate shadows on the wall we free them to play, to pursue their own thoughts, and to create their own understanding. The purpose of all learning, at bottom, is nothing less than joy.


If you're interested in learning about what you can do, right now, to create a learning village that parents will wholeheartedly support, I've developed this 6-part course called The Empowered Educator: Partnering With Parents. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. How would it be to have parents show up as allies? Click this link to register and to learn more. Discounts are available for groups. Registration for this cohort closes on March 31 (today!), so act fast!

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