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.

This is part three in a series on education. Part one gives a personal story about the power of words. Part two talks about diverse intelligence.

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  1. [...] is part two in a series on education. Part one talks about the power of words. Part three talks about our natural ability to [...]

  2. Jenny says:

    Ian, this ROCKS!!!!

  3. ian says:

    thanks Jenny

  4. Jenny F. says:

    Very very interesting. Look forward to another blog long the same lines.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Dear Ian,
    So nice to read my own thoughts captured so eloquently.  I am currently working on opening THE UNSCHOOLING CENTER FOR SELF-DIRECTED TEENS in Grand Rapids as a resource for teens to learn together in their own way. If you’re interested you can read more about our proposal at the website listed above.
    Chad Beyer, whom you may know(?), was working with me on this but had to withdraw his great energy and passion after moving to Ann Arbor with his partner.  I am looking for someone who shares this vision to help me bring it into being.  I thought I might find a connection here with your readers or someone you know.
    Thank you for writing this series of articles on kind and compassionate learning.

  6. ian says:

    this is AWESOME Rebecca- let me think about this and spread the word. Thank you

  7. Rick Ackerly says:

    Rebecca, I am definitely interesting in collaborating with you in this area. 

  8. Rick Ackerly says:

    contact me at rackerly@gmail.com or my website.

  9. Katie Reitemeier says:

    Rebecca, You have a vitally important and beautiful vision here. I am also interested in being part of mid-wifing this project to fruition.  I will reach you this week to continue the dialogue. K. Reitemeier

  10. ian says:

    Awesome Katie- nice to see your name appear. Keep me in touch with this. Im very interested,

  11. [...] is part two in a series on education. Part one talks about the power of words. Part three talks about our natural ability to [...]

  12. Gale says:

    I love this article.  Meet me where I am; expect competency.  Just want to add to the mix that although “readiness” teaching and exercises are chains,  teaching different learners in the way they learn best sets them free.  Knowing this about our students and letting them learn this about themselves may have boosted scores even higher.  When individuals with unique learning styles or other differences and even disability are met where they are, they too flourish.  I believe the U.S. is admired for the steps it is trying to make towards inclusion.

  13. [...] is the first part in a series on education. Part two explores the value in multiple intelligences. Part three talks about our natural ability to [...]

  14. Deepak Dhungel says:

    Teaching is just about facilitation and in case of children it worked just by saying and repeating words like “That’s cool. That’s fantastic. Show me more.” and encourage them to continue trying differently. In many cases, you do not have to be content or subject matter expert and just facilitate and encourage to learn…..