It is clearly observable that very young people learn extremely effectively if given half a chance. We almost all learned how to walk, talk, handle tools, control our bodily functions and get our needs met in complex social situations, by the time we were three years old. This is an astonishing achievement.
It is also observable that our ability and willingness to learn new things tends to fall off dramatically as we get older, certainly when compared to that of our earliest years. This learning ‘gap’ has been assumed to be inevitable and biological, therefore unchangeable. This seems a pessimistic point of view.
This article explains why and gives some directions for bridging the ‘gap’.
How infants learn
Very young children learn in many, many different ways. They observe the world. They try things out ‘for fun’ and see what happens. They imitate people. They ask questions. They ask for help sometimes. They appear to set themselves goals and go for them with enormous persistence. Their involvement with the learning process is total. There is no separation between learning, play, work, and leisure.
Infants do everything, including all aspects of learning, with frightening intensity. If they hit obstacles, they freely express their frustration in tears or tantrums. If they have success there will be squeals of excitement or enormous giggles. These forms of emotional release seem to unlock the energy required to continue the process of discovery.
The learning environment around young people
Unfortunately, because our society does not value or support parenting, the pressures on parents make it hard to maintain optimal conditions for learning for much of an infant’s early life. However, something like what follows happens in most homes sometimes. It is an ideal.
A child is learning to walk. Typically the adults around the child are 1) paying loving attention 2) being encouraging 3) showing delight at attempts and ‘failures’ as well as successes 4) being noisily enthusiastic about the child (you clever girl!) and showing it 5) not ‘helping’ 6) not judging or criticising 7) not giving advice 8) not interfering with the child’s natural learning process 9) not directing what should be learned, or when 10) celebrating success with the child 11) accepting the child’s feelings and allowing their expression.
The effect of this loving and encouraging atmosphere is that the child enjoys the learning process and responds to others pleasure in her learning. Everyone finds it enormous fun.
Sudbury Valley School has no curriculum, the children, from 4 to 18, choose entirely what they want to learn and when and how they want to learn it. There are no grades or exams. It is extraordinarily effective. The book Free at Last about the school is utterly inspiring.
Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments show that children can teach themselves and each other. Children all over India learned English and how to use the internet completely without instruction. They were simply motivated by curiosity and peer interest. There’s more here.
How is the natural learning process degraded?
Learning is one function of human intelligence. In order to understand how it operates (and is degraded) we need first to understand how intelligence operates. Human beings as infants have enormously flexible intelligence in that they take in information open-mindedly from the environment, compare and contrast it with what they already know and then make a new and appropriate (for them) response. The flexibility of very young children’s intelligence is legendary; you can never predict what they will do.
This process is available to all of us, and works well except in two circumstances. We tend not to think well when we are hurting and may then do stupid things which hurt us or others. We also find it difficult to think when we are in situations which remind us of times when we have been hurt in the past. Again, we tend to do stupid things that reinforce the original hurt. Eventually this leads us to develop rigid (non-learning) patterns of behaviour.
The degradation of intelligence when we are hurting affects all aspects of human behaviour including our learning processes. We cannot learn effectively when we are hurting or when the situation where we are trying to learn reminds us of a ‘learning’ situation in which we were hurt. Unfortunately, many of these ‘learning’ situations were inappropriately managed and hurtful. We were often judged, criticised, rigidly controlled and humiliated. Many of us are so damaged by this that we acquire a rigid behaviour pattern of rejecting voluntary learning altogether because of our association of all learning situations with painful experiences
The recovery process
When young people are hurt they take immediate action to get rid of their pain. This process is spontaneous and untaught. Typically a young person will find another person who is attentive and then actively release the tension. This can take the form of talking to the other person, crying, angry movements (a tantrum), sweating or shaking, laughing, or yawning. These processes will continue, if uninterrupted, for quite a long time. At the end the child will be bright eyed, energetic, and eager to continue learning.
These processes thoroughly eliminate the painful emotion and lead to the rapid recovery of the ability to think in the area that was formerly occluded by negative feelings. Unfortunately, these recovery processes disturb adults and society and so tend to be inhibited, often in quite unconscious ways (e g the common injunction “big boys don’t cry”). We tend to lose the awareness and ability to use our natural recovery processes through these inhibitions that are imposed on us from outside.
Counselling is a way to recover and use this natural process. One person agrees to pay attention to another as the other “talks through” a problem or situation and releases her or his tension using the above mechanisms. In its most powerful form the counsellor and client then swap roles. This process will shift the inhibitions around learning naturally using all the modalities available to young people. It can be learned quite quickly.
When a young person has learned something new s(he) will naturally and noisily celebrate this fact by crowing about it. The child will celebrate her/his enormous cleverness in learning this new thing. The expression of self-appreciation and delight anchors in her/his mind the awareness of the child’s abilities and reinforces her/his motivation towards making the best of further learning experiences.
This celebration makes most adults feel very uncomfortable because it stirs up their own feelings of doubt and discouragement. We tend to suppress the child from ‘showing off’ and create the very doubt and discouragement that we suffer from. So the process perpetuates itself.
Implications for Education and Training
We need to create better conditions for learning to take place. These conditions would as far as possible be similar to those that surround young people ideally. They imply more play, more support, more learner centred and much less detailed instruction than is common.
We need to enable our students and ourselves to release any of their tension about learning situations before we try and teach anything. Tense students with tense teachers are not likely to learn well. That means they will need to learn how to counsel each other to release this. We can help our students and ourselves recover our giant sized ability to learn.
We need to encourage our students to celebrate their naturally enormous ability to learn and crow about their successes. Trainers and teachers might do this themselves. ‘Three reasons why I am an excellent teacher are…’
We need to research more into the nature of the natural learning process, play. Observe what young people do, listen to how they think and learn from them how to learn and grow.
The ideas in this note are a hypothesis based on common sense observations. They now need further testing and refining. If they prove to be true, we will design learning and teaching processes that will enable us to use our innate abilities to learn. The implications and benefits are staggering.