Monday, July 18, 2022

This Is Their Natural Habitat

"Collecting data on human learning based on children's behavior in school I like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World." ~Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers

Schools, as we conceive of them, are not the natural habitat for young children any more than Sea World is the natural habitat for killer whales. Any marine biologist knows that if they really want to understand orcas, they must find a way to study them in the wild. The same, it seems, would go for the study of how humans learn. The "natural habitat" for young child, as Dr. Naomi Fisher tells us at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, is while they are at play.

As she writes in her book Changing Our Minds, "Cognitive experiments on learning and memory are designed to focus on a particular question and, in order to do that, they simplify the situation down to the absolute basics. They strip learning of context, in order to understand the underlying processes. Which is useful if that's your aim. But . . . when these theories are applied in education, there's a tendency to ignore just how simplified the experiments were. Children can't be striped down to underlying processes." 

This research on children in captivity has lead to schools adopting what is often called the "knowledge-based" approach to education, which asserts that children cannot be experts and think creatively until they have the necessary background knowledge. However, "Outside the memory lab," Dr. Fisher tells us, "there is no evidence that this is the best way to learn." Indeed, studies that seek to compare schooled children with those who do not attend school find that one of the few things that schooled children do better is to remember lists of unrelated information, a skill that is only useful in school. By most other measures of learning, those who were not educated in Sea World demonstrate equal or greater learning, not to mention much higher self-motivation to continue learning.

Dr. Fisher tells us, "This separation of learning and purpose is not based on science. Nowhere do the studies show that people learn best when what they are learning is not meaningful for them."

Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in how we attempt to teach children mathematics through the "knowledge-based" approach, which generally involves separating learning and purpose by abstracting it all into symbolic notations like numerals, operators, and equations. In doing so, we rob mathematics of its purpose, making it simply an exercise in rote. If we taught art the way we teach math, we would start young children with, say, horizontal lines. Then, after much drilling, we would move on to vertical lines, then curved lines, and so on. Somewhere around middle school we might introduce color theory, perhaps spending entire semesters on individual colors. Finally, in college, if they managed to stick to it, they would be allowed to "put it all together" and paint their first painting. In no time at all, kids would come to hate art as much as they hate math.

The beauty of learning through the "natural habitat" of play is that learning and purpose are inextricably linked, which means that it is always meaningful for the learner. Mathematics, for instance, when encountered in the real world is simply the process by which we discover increasingly useful, complex, and beautiful ways to organize, sort, sequence, and pattern. This is something even our youngest children do for pleasure. It is meaningful for them because it emerges from their exploration of their world, yet so many of us "learned" our math in school that we have trouble identifying it when we see it happening in "the wild."

As Dr. Fisher puts it, "When (children) are told how something works, they imitate. When they aren't told, they explore. And in the second case, they learn more."

Play is, at bottom, exploration. It is the process of deriving meaning, discovering purpose, and making connections between the world and ourselves. When children play, when they are freed from the Sea World of standard schooling, they are self-motivated, joyful, capable learners. This is their natural habitat.


To see my entire interview with Naomi Fisher, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide! When we create better childhoods, we create a better world.

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