Why do we learn things?
It’s in our genes. We are inquisitive by nature. We want to understand how things work. We want to acquire new skills. We are creative.
We don’t really need to know that there are such things as black holes. We don’t need to know anything about space to cope with our daily lives. Yet, ever since we started gazing into the night sky, we’ve wondered what’s out there. That’s what sets us apart from all the other species on the planet. We want to learn and understand in a way that we don’t really need for our daily existence.
There are some basic skills that we all must learn, like mastering how to walk. We imitate how others do and try a thousand times until we get the hang of it. A child who is learning how to walk falls over so many times that it’s impossible to keep score. Yet she persists and finally one day, she can walk. The child is programmed to learn how to walk. It’s in her genes. Not learning how to walk is not an option.
There are other skills that everyone learns, but slightly differently depending on the cultural context, like learning how to eat. Whether a child eats with fork and knife, sticks or their hand is decided by the culture they grow up in, but every child learns how to eat.
We are also programmed to learn how to talk. Our genes dictate that we should talk, but in what language is decided by the cultural context. At the start, our brains are not set on any particular language, but already at a few months of age, children babble in the language that they hear every day.
Children learn all these skills on their own. What if the child had simply given up? What if after a few attempts, she would have thought “It’s no use, I quit, I cannot do this!” Our genes drive us to acquire these basic skills, we don’t have the option of not learning them.
Apart from the basic skills, there’s an unlimited amount of optional skills and knowledge. Things that we don’t really need to know for our daily existence, but we choose to learn them anyway.
Schools have been around for a long time, but it’s only been about 150 years since we started the mass education system. What was once a privilege to a select few is now obligatory for everyone. The modern school system stems from a need to produce somewhat educated factory workers. Blue collar jobs came in plenty and society had to educate the children to mold their future workers.
But, lately everything has changed, the demand for blue collar workers has gone down substantially. Yet the school systems persist in teaching more or less in the same way as it always has done. Everyone has to learn the same things at the same age. The tuition is largely based on sitting still. Be quiet and listen. Don’t speak unless asked. Don’t ask questions that are off topic, there’s no time for that.
Everything is measured. How many words can you read per minute? How many math problems can you complete in 10 minutes? Standardized tests to be able to compare children all over the country. Kids stop learning because they want to. They stop being inquisitive and creative. They start to learn only what they need to. Is this going to be on the test? A knowledge that is not tested for is deemed as useless. Why would you bother learning something that’s not going to reflect in your grades?
Kids are falling behind and the results from the nationwide testing are at a free fall. The authorities don’t know what to do. In an effort to stop this downward spiral, they enforce even more testing and stricter curriculums. Unfortunately, such measures aren’t the answer, if anything, it’s likely to lead to even worse results with more kids leaving school without the necessary skills and knowledge.
Parents with kids that excel in today’s school system might not see the problem, but the parents of the struggling children do indeed. Stephen Camarata, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says that there are two primary difficulties with the system that the parents need to address:
1) “An increasingly irrational, accelerated curriculum that pressures children to learn material long before their developing minds are ready.”
2) “A one-size-fits-all assembly-line process based on age level rather than ability level.”
How to deal with this? Well, as Camarata points out all good teachers naturally meet their students where they are intellectually, but the problem is that the curriculum is so strict that it leaves little room for the teachers to improvise.
If your child isn’t so lucky as to get a good teacher, she could be in for a long struggle to get by during the school years. Try to observe how your child copes with the assigned work and help them where needed. Teach them things that are not in the school curriculum and keep a lively discussion at the dinner table about how things work (or don’t work) in the world. Force them to think on their own and formulate their own opinions.
Teach them about resilience and persistence. Teach them to be agile and flexible. Teach them respect, compassion, and consideration. Teach them to speak up and not remain silent when injustice is done. Help them to stay strong even when everything seems to be going against them.
Preparing kids for a future we know little about is a challenge and there’s no easy way of doing it. The school system of today is unfortunately not the answer. We need to find a more flexible way of teaching that is based on ability rather than age. We must take advantage of children’s creativity and eagerness to learn instead of propping them full of complex information that their developing minds cannot yet grasp.
Transforming the educational system is a complex endeavor that will take time and effort, but it’s something we have to do if we are to have a future at all.