Thursday, November 02, 2023


There is a theory within the Theory of Evolution that proposes that when the first living things emerged from the oceans to live on land they had to, almost immediately by evolutionary standards, evolve better eyesight. I mean, in the murkiness of underwater, sight wasn't the best strategy, but in the relative clearness of air, it became possible to see into the distance, giving these newly-landed creatures the space in which they could anticipate future events. This necessitated the "invention" of time with its arrow pointing in a singular direction. This brought with it the adaptive advantage of being able to predict and plan, time being the thing into which these predictions and plans could unfurl.

It stands to reason, then, that this emergence of the future likewise led to the emergence of the past, in a kind of necessary symmetry. After all, what good is seeing into the future unless it can be compared and contrasted with past experiences in a way that can be used to drive current behaviors that increase the odds of surviving long enough to pass on those genes.

Physicists tell us that time is a figment of perspective, that it is merely a different way of conceiving space, that all moments are present simultaneously, but we are incapable of fully comprehending it, except perhaps through mathematics. Generally speaking, for most of us, most of the time, this knowledge falls into the category of true-but-not-useful. Our ability to measure space as time gives us an adaptive advantage and that's all that really matters. In other words, it is false-but-quite-useful.

Human learning is a process of living within the symmetrical bubble of future-present-past, in which we are forever surveying our surroundings, assessing the prospective future and comparing what our senses tell us with experience. This allows us to make predictions based on experience, then plan, both consciously and intuitively, what our best course of action might be. 

Schooling tends to take a different approach to learning. Whereas for most of our existence, learning was a process of direct experience in which we looked to our own experiences and made our own plans and predictions, school is an attempt to somehow one-up Mother Nature by replacing the learning process with second-hand experiences and other people's guesses about the future. Instead of seeing our own lions or apple trees in the distance, we're told about theoretical lions and apple trees, even though the child's actual present experience is made of textbooks and talking teachers. Instead of experiencing lions and apple trees, we're told about other people's experiences with them, even though the child's actual present experience is made of social media and smart phones. In other words, much of what passes for education is, for any given individual, true-but-not-useful.

In Ursula LeGuin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness an alien species has developed what they call Foretelling, a way of seeing into the future, although only a few, special, individuals have this ability. Like with our own ancient oracles, kings and paupers alike come to them seeking answers to their questions, although their predictions usually prove to be of the true-but-not-useful variety. At one point, a disappointed seeker asks why they even bother with Foretelling at all. The answer: "To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."

This is why play-based, or self-directed, learning is so vital. It insures that the right questions, that is, the relevant questions, are being asked: real questions, based on actual experience. Self-directed learning is about learners asking and answering their own questions, which is why there is never a problem with motivation or relevance in play-based programs. Learners, individually and collectively, are self-motivated because they are free to learn the way humans have evolved to learn, in an ongoing dance between experience and prediction, past and future. Schooling focuses exclusively on correct answers, but in play it's immaterial whether or not the answers are objectively true or objectively false because in the process of learning it is only the useful answer to the right question that has ever mattered.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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