How do young people really learn? The Argument for Transformational Change

Think about the world around us right now. Is this the world you want for your children? If not, what would that new world look like? And in this new world, how do you imagine them learning and living?

After decades of failed efforts to reform traditional, compulsory schooling, it is time to transform both the way we define “education” and the way we seek to support it in our young. It is time to pay attention to all of the scientific research about how young people really learn—research that shows that the poets and philosophers have been right all along:

  • That learning is a natural process. It is what defines us as human beings. We are “the learning animal”. Learning does not have to be coerced. People do not have to be bribed, bullied or otherwise “motivated” to learn; we are born hard-wired to learn. We can see that most clearly in infants and toddlers. At the time in life when the rate of learning is at its highest, in the first three years of life, young people learn language. They figure out that certain sounds, when put together in specific ways, give them the ability to communicate with others, to express their demands and seek answers to their unending questions. Compulsory schooling—the system that has been in place for over 150 years in America—actually works against the natural predisposition to learn.
  • That learning is not the product of teaching; it is the product of the activity of the learner. Learning (hence, education) is an internal and interactive process. It happens between the ears of each individual and is shaped by each individual’s experience with others and the world. Knowledge is not something poured from a pitcher, from teacher to student. If it were, all students in a class would learn the same thing, at the same level, as everyone else in the class. We know that this is not how real learning happens. It happens through the interaction between the learner and the subject matter, and between learners figuring things out; it happens by way of experience. Hence the old saying:

I hear, and I forget.

I see, and I remember.

I do, and I understand.

Learning without understanding isn’t worth much. It permits only regurgitation; as John Holt noted, “The difference between a good student and a bad one is that the good student doesn’t forget the answers until after the test.

  • That the best learning happens when the learner is in a playful environment. This is true at all ages. For young people, play is all about learning; they are learning how the adult world works by playing out what they see around them, making it their own as they practice the skills needed in adulthood. By taking the play out of learning, traditional schooling greatly reduces the level of interest, intention and retention. This is one of the reasons why youths so often complain that school is boring. An enjoyable, natural process has been ruined by being stripped of its nutrients and then force fed into its powerless subjects.
  • That people are most motivated to learn what interests them. This seems like common sense, and yet forced schooling, with its Core Curriculum, ignores this reality. It tells people what they are supposed to learn and when they should learn it. It denies the reality of individualism, the fact that each of us is, and has a right to be, our own person. It’s like telling everyone, “You’re going to be 5’8” tall and weigh 150 pounds whether you like it or not.” Educational research has begun to uncover the strong links between taking ownership of one’s learning (which includes having the freedom to choose what interests you and the space to follow through) and greater intellectual growth.

The New Option

Imagine a community that supports the natural joy in learning about the world and in creating our place in it. Imagine a place that takes away all of the anxiety and fear normally associated with school and allows young people:

  • to grow in the sunshine of collaboration rather than artificially contrived competition,
  • to learn by doing, reflecting and adjusting, rather than being lectured to, memorizing, regurgitating and forgetting,
  • to turn academic awareness into practical knowledge by learning in the context of purposeful activity—doing work that matters to the individual who is doing it,
  • to deeply explore, discover and strengthen their inherent gifts, interests and passions, and thereby develop a strong sense of identity, and
  • to learn how to improve upon their natural creative abilities, and to use these skills
  • to create a life of purpose and fulfillment.

Natural Creativity is working to build a place in Philadelphia where youths from four to eighteen years old will play, work and learn together, along with a dedicated staff of adults and other volunteers, to explore the world and pursue their interests in creative ways. They will find answers to such life-changing questions as:

  • how does collaboration really work, and what makes it so difficult for so many adults to use it to improve life for themselves and society as a whole?
  • what is the Creative Process, and why is it mistakenly assumed to be the exclusive promise of a few “gifted” individuals?
  • how can I learn to use my time constructively in a way that I enjoy and that will help me grow as a person?
  • how can I build a strong sense of who I am and what I am capable of so that the opinions of others do not limit my personal growth?

Now is the time to stand up for the creative minds of all young people and work together to transform education in Philadelphia and beyond so that all young people will flourish through the combination of guidance and freedom that this new approach to life will bring.

Written by Peter Bergson, Co-Founder and Board Vice President, Natural Creativity

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