Monday, September 15, 2014

The Incredible Ways Children Learn

Photo: Alamy
This week I have been listening to the TED Radio Hour podcast and I want to share a specific broadcast with you. As educators and parents, I think you'll find this absolutely fascinating and encouraging. You are all probably back to school, settling into schedules, past the first-week blues, and maybe you're excited about where this year is going to take you and your family. Or maybe you're in desperate need of some encouragement. Either way, I think this podcast will re-energy the weary and strengthen the resolve of the enthusiastic.

Entitled Unstoppable Learning, and drawing from five different TED talks, host Guy Raz digs into the absolutely incredible way babies and children learn. The latest science shows that even while babies are in the womb, they're taking in, assimilating, and processing information. One little factoid that I loved was when babies are born, they cry in the accent of their mother's language! Babies have already learned how to adapt to the culture and family into which they are born. Wow!

The look of wonder in a baby, a window into
their brilliant minds.
The first years of a child's life are critically important in their lives, but learning does not stop there. Sugara Mitra talks about his experiment in placing a computer into a wall in a slum in Delhi. He placed it at a height children could easily reach and left. And what were these children doing on this computer? Via remote desktop, Mitra was able to observe what the children were doing with this new object of fascination. With no training on how to use a computer, young children were teaching themselves how to use it. They figured out how to use the character map because the computer had no keyboard. And the real kicker is that the computer operated in English so these unstoppable learners taught themselves English in order to be able to teach themselves how to use the computer! These are children living in desperate conditions, without access to the luxuries of tutors, specialized education programs, even basic school supplies. And yet, that thirst for knowledge is unquenchable when given an outlet for development. Mitra pushed his experiment further. He developed a proposition: with access to a computer, would Tamil speaking children in a village with access to a computer programed in English be able to teach themselves about DNA replication? Without teachers, without adult supervision, without computer training of any kind, these children in an Indian village did in fact teach themselves about DNA duplication. And so Mitra saw something that has been observable but often ignored: children do not need to be taught how to learn. Teaching is not about training children to learn. Children begin learning in the womb. As educators, it's often more our role to set up an environment that provides fertile soil for the growth of that inherent learning ability. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is step out of the way!

Our entire philosophy is built around this idea: children are natural learners. They do not need to be taught to be curious, interested, or explorative. Every parent knows that babies and toddlers are the most curious creatures alive. This ability does not magically cease to exist when they enter school, but sadly it seems to wither in the confines of a classroom, rigid schedule, lifeless textbooks, and arbitrary standards. We've found that educating children via a philosophy that allows for more personalization, less rigid evaluation, and a broader definition of "learning" allows this inborn skill to flourish. Our study guides are not strict to-do lists. They do not contain a lot of tests. They're structured around fantastic stories and literature. We encourage parents to take part in their children's learning process, to discuss ideas and events, to channel curiosity into critical thinking. So if you find yourself bogged down in a curriculum that has endless checklists and fill-in-the blank worksheets, consider taking a step back. Seek to encourage joy in exploration. The learning will come. And take a bit of time to listen to the podcast, it's a great reminder that sometimes we just need to let go of our expectations and allow children the freedom to be their curious selves.

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