There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way that schools treat children and their approach to the learning process. Understanding how humans learn best is the key to understanding what strategic shifts are needed. Many anthropological studies show that we are, as Peter Gray describes it, ‘the Educable Animal’. We are able to learn to a degree that goes beyond any other species.
The capability of children has been, for a long time, at best underestimated, and at worst ignored. Children, as has been demonstrated by Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, have the ability and power to influence, and yet many of our traditional learning environments do not promote or allow them to openly express their thirst for exploration and passion.
Children, if given the responsibility for their own learning, can achieve extraordinary things. They can pursue projects and passions at their own pace and with deep understanding and knowledge. Take a student at my current school who taught himself lock-picking. He spent many uninterrupted hours studying and practicing the art of lock-picking, to the point at which there aren’t many locks he can not pick. He is now pursuing a career as a locksmith. And take the studies conducted by Sugatra Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments, where children, given just a computer and no English in India, were able to educate themselves to extraordinarily high levels of competence.
There are many educators who are promoting a change in the paradigm. Schools exist where children are given the freedom to control their own lives and learning, such as Glacier Lake School in Montana, USA, which is influenced by the self-directed/democratic school movement exemplified by schools such as Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts and Summerhill in the UK. Many parents too, provide an environment at home that encourages free exploration, play and the pursuit of passion. Take the famous now multi-Grammy award winning Billie Eilish, who was unschooled, who said:
“Being homeschooled is all about self-discovery. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed and thrived under. I’m not at a high school where I have to base my self-worth off what other people think of me. I have to think, “What would I like to be doing? How would I like to be as a person?” I think that’s an enormously positive thing.”
Learning environments need to provide room for growth, passion, play, exploration and enjoyment of the learning process.
Traditional schools have the constraints of exam-driven and standardized-test-based curricula. I have been a teacher and administrator in these schools for many years and I know that most of my colleagues are constantly trying to find ways of personalizing learning for the student in a system set up to be non-personalized. This is the dilemma – How to engage and promote a child’s natural instinct for learning within an environment not set up for individual and personalized passions and interests? How do we shift the control of learning from the adult to the child?
There are so many things a child could be interested in and yet they are rarely given the time or space to discover them.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book ‘Flow – The psychology of optimal experience’ says:
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than we were.”
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments likes these, the best moments in our lives, are not passive receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile….for each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
Change can happen in all schools, and if we start with giving children much more freedom and ownership of the school environment through a more equal share in decision making in how their school is run, and which rules and sanctions are necessary, they will start to make change for good, from within. Finding ways to give children that sense of ownership and belonging, so that school becomes a place where they want to go, so that they can learn, be free, and push their boundaries and capabilities.
There are so many ideas all schools can implement immediately to improve the lives of our children. Ownership of the decision-making processes is one and choice in what to learn is another.
Like Malala and Greta, if you have the will – change can happen, and it can be the children who make it happen. We, as adults, need to provide them with that environment so that they feel empowered.