Friday, February 02, 2024

Learning is an Ongoing Process of Self-Liberation

"We figured out (two millennia ago) that the Earth is spherical," writes physicist Carlo Rovelli, "and (a half a millennium ago) that it moves. At first glance these are absurd ideas, since the Earth appears to us to be flat and still. In order to digest such ideas, the difficulty lies not so much with the new concept as it does with becoming liberated from old ones that seem too obviously to be true; bringing them into doubt seems inconceivable. We are always convinced that our natural intuitions are self-evidently right, and it is this that prevents us from learning more."

I started writing this blog in 2009, posting nearly every day. When I return to read what I wrote back then, I find I'm confronted by my past self. I'm always tempted to delete or heavily edit. After all, I'm a different person than I was 14 years ago. I'm a different person because of what I've learned in the interim. So far, I've left the posts as they are, however, because like the story told by out-of-date textbooks, its speaks to my journey from there to here. This is what learning is. We must constantly, and often consciously, overcome our natural intuitions and previously held notions in order to grow. This is how we become new people, while the story of our journey reminds us that we are continuous beings.

In the famous Ship of Theseus thought experiment, preserved for us by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch, we are to imagine a wooden ship in a harbor. As its planks begin to decay, they are replaced, one-by-one, with new, stronger planks. The question is, once the planks are all replaced, is it still the ship of Theseus or is it a whole new ship? 

Or, I suppose, we could ask, "Has the original ship been liberated from itself?" Maybe it's not such an apt metaphor when applied to an inanimate object, but isn't that exactly what we do as we learn? Our old self, our old ideas, our old opinions, must make way for stronger planks. 

When a young child looks into a mirror for the first time, there is clearly another child inside there. In order to understand the concept of a mirror, they must liberate themselves from what they thought they knew. When we speak of young children as "sponges" that soak up everything around them, what we are reacting to is their incredible capacity to discard, without prejudice or sentiment, those decaying planks in favor stronger ones which, in turn, are replaced, and so on.

Looked at this way, learning is an ongoing process of self-liberation. 

This is what too many of us unlearn as we calcify, if we're not careful, into middle age. If we're not careful we find ourselves trapped by our old ideas. If we're not careful, we loose our capacity for liberation. If we're not careful, we stop learning and when that happens all we have are absurd stories and decay.


 This is your final opportunity to join the 2024 cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. It's a particularly powerful course to take with your entire team. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

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