Teaching kids to learn is as unnecessary as teaching a bird to fly or a fish to swim. Kids have a natural and hands on curiosity to find out EVERYTHING they can about life. It’s not one part of their life. It’s ALL they do. A good teacher, parent or mentor, will motivate and create space for this natural learning, try and match the child question for question and then get out of the way. Maria Montessori, the pioneering educator, put it like this,
These words reveal the child’s inner needs; ‘Help me to do it alone’.
Most of us are pretty good about this for the first two years; not worrying about how quickly kids walk or talk, but beyond two the pressure begins. Most of the anxiety is actually the adult’s insecurity and not any real problem with the child. Similarly, a lot of the educational reform solutions are based on adult style intervention and finger pointing.
A young kid arrived at school one day and said to his teacher: “I don’t want to frighten you, but my dad said if my grades don’t improve, somebody is going to be punished.”
The education system is a tangled web of blame and heads in the sand. For example:
- The U.S. ranks 25th out of 30 developed countries in math proficiency, but first in how proficient its citizens think we are.
- “Failing schools can’t always be blamed on failing neighborhoods; failing neighborhoods can be blamed on failing schools.” Waiting For Superman
- The U.S. spends more to incarcerate someone for four years than it would cost to educate the same inmate in private school for 12 years (and likely keep him/her out of prison).
- “Teachers in the U.S. get tenure if they breathe for two years.” Geoffrey Canada. It’s almost impossible to fire bad teachers.
- Obama’s Race to the Top policy has its merits but still tests performance in a narrow range. It encourages teachers to teach the test, rather than following a child’s natural flow of development.
- Romney’s Parental Choice policy also has merits, in particular the focus on giving poor families greater power. But neither political approach really gets to the heart of the issue.
Is there a way to change the system without blame and coercion?
The most creative solution I have heard about recently is from an Education Scientist, Sugata Mitra. He raises an important dilemma; the places where no teachers will go are the areas with the greatest social problems. So we have a catch 22. Mitra has been conducting an interesting experiment. He puts computers in holes in the wall in remote and poor areas. He just leaves them there, 3 feet off the ground, and waits to see what happens.
Invariably, kids who have never seen a computer and know nothing of the internet, will play around until they work it out. As he says,
Education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.
In one experiment in a poor region of India, he set the kids up with a biotechnology project. None of them had any knowledge of biotechnology. Their scores quickly improved from zero to 30 percent which was amazing but still not a pass. Then he added a step to the experiment. He asked a local accountant, a young girl who played soccer with the kids, to teach them enough biotechnology to pass. She also knew little about biotechnology and had no training as a teacher.
When she asked how to do it, he said,
Stand behind them and admire them all the time. Just say to them, ‘That’s cool. That’s fantastic. Show me more.’
She did this for two months and their scores went up to 50 which is what the students in wealthy schools who had biotechnology teachers, were getting.
He is only one person, and he has only done limited experiments. And yet there is something intuitively right about this approach. It seems to offer a healthy model for all forms of teaching and learning at all ages. Create space, ask good questions and get out of the way. Here is an education mantra to live by-
May we not do for others what they are better doing themselves.
May we not teach others what they are better learning for themselves.
May we not tell others what they are better experiencing for themselves.