Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Learning, real learning -- trying to make more sense of what's happening -- is as natural and satisfying as breathing." This line, from an essay by Marion Brady (it's a blog post, but that's what we consider essays these days, in 2010), is so beautiful and basic to my beliefs about teaching and learning. Anyone who has watched a child, or even remembers being a child, can recall that natural feeling of wanting to know more about something, and finding out more, either through books and reading or direct observation.

For me it was trees and plants and small animals and the waterfowl and peafowl that my father raised on his weekend farm. I wanted to know them better, so I played among them all day and pored over guidebooks, with a different species on each page, at night or on rainy days. I drank in anything I could read or observe about Greek and Roman mythology and then played it out during my solitary theater sessions in the pastures around my house.

For my own sons, it was interesting rocks, coins, money from other lands, strange languages, and we have the library collections in our bookshelves at home to prove it. They have moved on to study theater, creative writing, film, Russian, citizens of the world, rather than just students in school.

It is not hard to see this or resurrect it in small children, or even in older ones, even thirteen years old. It is also not hard to squelch it, so that you have to tease it out again, battling the hardness and resistance that years of ignorant, wrong-headed education policy have brought out of each child. I saw it happen to my own children, even when I did what I could to shepherd them along through my school system, finding them, sometimes, just the right teachers. Some they found themselves, especially when they reached high school and could take over more choices while sitting in a guidance counselor's office.

Breathing in knowledge, casting a net of curiosity over the wide world, that is what small children do very well. Even while they pursue social connections in kindergarten, they introduce their new friends to their favorite things and ideas, and they are exposed to their new friends' obsessions as well, further enlarging their worlds. Enlarging one's world is how it is supposed to work for children, as well as for adults. Curricula that are limited by narrow assessments work against this very natural feeling we have of asking whatever pops into our heads.

I have watched children, like mistreated houseplants, come back to life as thinkers and questioners when given choices about reading material and writing topics. When asked questions and encouraged to ask them, thirteen-year-olds can return to some of that wonderment, immerse themselves in some of their obsessions, to the betterment of their communication skills, the same skills we want to develop to make good citizens of the 21st century. It doesn't require paying them, or testing them, analyzing data on them, reorganizing schools and their employees.

It does require patient teachers who have been allowed to rebuild their own intellectual curiosity, who have been encouraged to ask questions and pursue the answers. It requires teachers who know how to reflect, something that the last thirty or forty years of school programs have not particularly fostered.

We are human beings, though, and human beings can direct and redirect their own thoughts and behavior. We can come back from horrendous destruction, back from emotional wastelands inflicted by sick caregivers, and we can even come back from bad educational experiences. Many of us, sufferers of ADD, ADHD, disabled by other real or theorized processing difficulties, have managed to retain and return to childhood states of wonder and curiosity. How many successful adults -- artists, entrepreneurs, happy, healthy citizenry -- do you know who hated the strictures of the classroom, and fared well in real life despite dismal school performances, and perhaps even (gasp! the horror!) NO COLLEGE STUDY?

If we were not driven by the capitalist need for consumers, our society might have many more people in it who spend very little but create much, who are not top wage-earners but invent and imagine and write and paint and compose and perform. Some of these people could hold within them the answer to our biggest problems, if we do not squelch the desire to know, to learn, to tinker, to discover. These are more important goals to human beings, than to outrank Japan or Germany or to have a docile work force.