The myth called learning

Do we want children to learn? Is it our need or their need? Do we want children to learn or do we want to teach? Does learning happens only when someone teaches? Here is learning myth buster.

I know nothing more inspiring than that of making, discovering for oneself

George Washington

The myth of learning is simple to state and prove. The myth says that only when we learn, do we learn. What it means is that unless there is a conscious and methodical method, learning cannot happen. It is only when we are taught (in a systematic, structured way) that we will learn.

But this is not true. Let’s take the mother of all examples to prove it wrong:
We all learned our mother tongue without any structured and specific effort to learn it. We learnt it by being exposed to it all the time, by hearing others speak in that language. Our brain was collating data, analyzing, concluding and assimilating it, without we or anybody perhaps realizing it.

Similarly, if I work in a garden (or in an agriculture field) I will automatically learn about crops and irrigation. In fact, the evolution of our education system is only recent – about 150-200 years old. We learned very differently for thousands of years. Perhaps we learned for different reasons. We did not learn to get marks or to pass exams. We learned for our life, our livelihood and for the joy of learning. Interestingly, for both, one would typically be an apprentice. So we learned on the job, by doing, by observing.

Incidentally, this is much the same way that most of us learned how to use computers – not in some class or from some teacher, but by simply using a computer for a purpose! (The fact that help is available is only facilitation to learning – not a source of learning per se.)

There was a boy who claimed that he had taught his dog how to sing. This news was exciting and people gathered to see and hear the dog sing. When the boy tugged at the dog’s leash, however, the dog just barked. People waited patiently and the boy tried many times, but every time the dog just barked. Finally. the public got restless and asked the child what happened to his claim that ‘he had taught his dog to sing’. The boy meekly replied, “I do claim that I have taught my dog how to sing, but I never said that he has learned it!”

Learning naturally
Don’t take us wrong. It is not that we are against structured learning or teaching. It is just that we, as a society and school community, have started to believe so strongly in structured learning that we have forgotten that children can learn naturally not just on their own but for their own reasons.
Our claim is that once we realize that a lot of learning actually happens when we’re just doing something, engaged and involved in our own goals and endeavors, then we open up and look at children and learning in many different ways.

Here are some examples:
1. We start looking at children as capable of creating their own learning (without us). This thought or belief itself empowers children. More importantly, we as teachers start respecting them more as individuals. This means just like us, children operate from interests and strengths and not from a curriculum.
2. When we believe in them as able children, we offer children more freedom and also more responsibility for their learning. When they learn more on their own, the learning is deep rooted.
3. We start giving less importance to learning and more importance to doing.Doing is a complex process; it involves observing, trying, failing and perhaps succeeding. It invariably generates peer interaction. It requires application of a complex set of thinking skills. It is not linear and often the learning is not obvious but deep.
4. We do not measure children with marks. Personally, I fared badly in the English literature examination, yet I love poetry, have read tonnes of poems and even write some. In fact, we stop measuring at all. We simply start involving children in the process of doing.
5. When we realize structure is not the king, rather the child is, we start accepting children who step out of the structure to learn something much deeper or enjoy something that is a little tangential. We go off the highway more often into uncharted territories that can be amazingly enriching. The other day, children studying vegetables got into a debate about a plant whose fruit we eat (e.g tomato) but we don’t eat its leaves! This led to tasting of leaves of many non-leafy vegetables by cutting, boiling, cooking, etc.
6. When we realize children learn in many ways, we realize that teaching need not be a task to simplify stuff. Much of our teaching resources try to make the learning explicit, easy to get. But the struggle to get to the learning is not only a hugely enriching experience but also much more enjoyable.

One of the reasons why we learn on the job faster is because everybody is out there to help us. Peer learning is at its peak, so let us exploit this undoubtedly.

And we can go on. Somehow this one myth that children need to learn the way we teach, once broken, can change the complete horizon of learning.
Try it – empowerment is perhaps the most important gift you can give to children.