Wednesday, May 04, 2022

If Compliance Is The Goal, Carry On

Swedish cognitive neuroscientist and researcher John Axelsson told us at the recently completed Play On Early Childhood Athens Conference that our brain seeks to become expert in the environment in which it finds itself. 

The brain is, in effect, a "simulation machine," according to Axelsson, designed to learn about the world, then automate the relevant survival behaviors. 

The example he gives is learning to drive. At first we must be conscious of every aspect of operating our vehicle (i.e., learning), but with practice the relevant behaviors become more and more automatic until we can free our brains up to do more "important" things, like simulating what we are going to say to our boss about being late yet again.

The brain learns and automates: learning takes a lot of energy, automation less. This means that we are in a continual process of converting behaviors that take more energy into behaviors that take less energy. This can also be called the process of becoming expert which is, to close the circle, what our brains are designed to do. 

We see this process in action, quite clearly, when we observe children at play. Each is drawn toward becoming expert in their environment, starting with what is most "important," which is to say that thing about which they have the most curiosity. I recently watched an 18 month old with a stick. His learning took the form of poking various things in his environment with it, trying the dirt, then the pavement, then a manhole cover, then a wall, then a tree trunk. I can certainly speculate about what he was learning, although I can never know for sure. What I do know is that he was seeking to become expert in the environment  in which he found himself because that's what humans do. Not far away, another child, in more or less the same environment, was sitting with her family at a lunch table repeatedly scraping a fork across a plate, then putting it into her mouth. She was also in the process of becoming expert in her environment.

Standard schools are based upon hubris and habit, rather than the science of how learning happens. When committees of adults pre-determine what is important in a child's environment, when they likewise predetermine how and on what schedule they are going to learn it, we cheat the children. Instead of creating environments of autonomy, we create ones of reliance upon others (i.e., adults). What children learn in these environments is that they must strive to ignore their curiosity and become expert instead at compliance, placing their learning in the hands of "teachers" who will then attempt to measure it. This is an artificially stressful environment and, as Axelsson told us, stress is one of the conditions under which learning slows down, or even ceases altogether in extreme cases.

In contrast, we learn best in relatively stress free environments. Axelsson points out that children escaping extremely stressful environments like war zones will stop playing until they find themselves in environments that are relatively stress free, like refugee camps. Indeed, they need to play in order to start becoming expert in the new environment in which they find themselves. Our schools are not, of course, war zones, but by seeking to control the bodies and minds of children, we are asking them to replace their curiosity with obedience. And that is unnecessarily stressful.

Some children learn those lessons in compliance quite well. We call them good students. Many more learn to hide or squelch their curiosity, doing their real learning by pursuing passions outside of school. Those we call "indifferent students" even if some of them learn to pass all the tests. Still others are driven to rebel, which is how their brains seek to become expert in an environment that tries to control them, a perfectly valid, even commendable response. These children know that, for them, escape is the only relevant behavior.

If we were to rely on science instead of habit and hubris, our school environments would look much different than they do right now. Instead of being places of top down curricula and compliance, they would be environments full of stuff and ideas. They would be environments in which children were free to pursue their curiosity, to become expert in the aspects of the environment that they deem most important, to do it in the manner they choose, and according to the timetable they set for themselves. Schools would be environments in which the adults themselves are part of the stuff and ideas, there not to instruct or control, but rather to answer questions, provide materials, and support each individual child to the degree and in the way the child determines. 

Those who support standard schools are never asked to defend their methods, whereas those of us who advocate for play-based or self-directed learning are forever being challenged to defend our approach. Again and again, the science, the evidence, tells us that if a generation of critical, creative thinkers is our goal, an environment of play is how our brains work best. Yet again and again we are called on to provide more evidence. It seems the only conclusion is that those who support standard schools have different ideas of education than I do.

And, of course, if compliance is the goal, carry on. You'll just be doing it without me.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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