Friday, July 01, 2022

We Would Finally Free Children From Teaching And Let Them Learn

Last week I posted about the nonsensical and fear-monger-y concept of "learning loss." I interpret this phrase as referring to children who had once "learned" something, but, because they have not been continually in school, say during the pandemic or over summer break, have now lost, or forgotten, important things they once knew. My point is that if learning is so easily lost, then it wasn't actually learned in the first place. I think this is how most people interpret the phrase "learning loss," including at least some of the researchers looking into the phenomenon, but a handful of readers objected to my post, claiming that "learning loss" refers to lost instructional time.

As one reader put it, "Learning loss is real. When children weren't in the classroom they lost out on learning opportunities."

"A . . . major illusion on which the school system rests," writes philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, "is that most learning is the result of teaching . . . Most learning is not the result of instruction." This is one of the most significant divides between those of us who understand learning as something each of us must construct for ourselves (constructivism) and those who believe that learning is primarily the product of teaching (behaviorism or didacticism). 

Standard schools, for the most part, operate on behaviorist principles. The frustrating thing is that behaviorism, as far as learning theories go, is in the ashcan of history, yet almost every school in the world continues to employ behaviorist principles. Grades, for instance, are a classic reward-punishment. Tests, and especially the standardized kind, don't assess learning, but rather the ability to perform. Under behaviorist instruction, it doesn't matter if the test-taker understands the materials just so long as they can recite the answers. And behavior management is all about conditioning children walk in lines, sit facing forward, and remain silent for large swaths of the day.

Many, if not most, teachers are conditioned to view children through the lens of behaviorism even if they continue to pay lip-service to the kind of self-directed learning that emerges from a constructivist approach. This leads to the mistake of conflating instruction with learning.

"They school them to confuse process and substance," writes Illich. "Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new." Teachers have been schooled to believe these things as well. It is what underpins the idea that when children struggle to learn what they are teaching they are assigned more homework, more desk time, extra worksheets, and more, always more, instruction, which is exactly what the behaviorists prescribe as a solution to the manufactured crisis they are calling "learning loss."

Constructivists know that children never stop learning. They learn in the evenings and on weekends. They learn during summer break. And they learned during the pandemic. What is appalling to behaviorists is that when children learn this way, outside of school, the adults have lost control. The kids are no longer learning what, when, where, and how the adults wish them to learn. They are instead learning real lessons about the real world. When we learn outside of school, which is how we expect humans to learn except during this strange, artificial window between the ages of 5 and 18 where we make them go to school, we teach ourselves: we are self-motivated, learning at full-capacity because we are driven by our natural, irrepressible curiosity, rather than the carrot and stick motivators that are relied upon by behaviorists.

"Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances," writes Illich, such as when a self-directed learner seeks out instruction by asking questions of a knowledgeable adult. "But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school . . . has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives." But the most damaging lesson learned in standard schools operating on behaviorist principles is that children are taught "the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definitions."

And it has real repercussions. "Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance . . . Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."

This, I believe, is what is really behind the fear mongering over the completely ludicrous ideas of "learning loss." We are afraid lest our institutions be revealed as self-serving.

If we are to honor the children before us, the ones who are in our classroom and homes, we must start by honoring the learning that they have done during these difficult couple years. Instead of viewing these children as somehow damaged, the humane approach is a constructivist one that sees the learning they have done outside of school as real and valid. We must not fall into the mistakes of behaviorism and conflate instruction with learning. Our job, as I see it, is to support children to build upon what they did learn, rather than what we, in our arrogance, believe they should have been instructed to learn.

At the end of the day, as Illich writes, "All over the world the school has an anti-educational effect on society: school is recognized as the institution which specializes in education. The failures of school are taken by most people as proof that education is very costly, very complex, always arcane, and frequently impossible task." This is the result of our supportable reliance upon behaviorism. "(L)earning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others." Perhaps if we would start by acknowledging this, we would finally free children from teaching and let them learn.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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