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  • Writer's pictureCassie Janisch

WHAT IF KIDS DON'T LEARN WHAT THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO?


Imagine if every thought you ever had, and every connection you made in your head, that made perfect sense to you, was evaluated by someone else and found to be wrong, or at the very least unimportant? This is effectively what children experience all the time at school. Someone else has decided what learning should look like, and discounts everything else that is going on for that child as irrelevant, or at the very least unimportant.


Imagine how it must feel to be experiencing life in glorious multicolour, combined with magnificent surround sound and incredible smells, exotic tastes, sensitive touch, and an acute awareness of all the feelings and connections that these sensations subjectively evoke in you, and then to have to switch off and ignore all of these stimuli to produce the one-dimensional answer that is expected of you in order to pass this test? This is the soul-destroying reality for most children, most of the time.


We think school is where children go to learn, but the reality in most cases is that school is where curiosity goes to die at the hands of one-dimensional, boring, hopelessly unnuanced curricula and learning materials that leave no space for true wisdom to emerge. Its like forcing our children to watch one version of life portrayed on a very small, very fuzzy black and white television set with poor sound quality, when their natural learning state is beyond even the most cutting-edge virtual-reality. It sounds pretty pathetic when you think of it that way, doesn’t it?


So, this essay is about the importance of staying out of judgement about what, and how, is being learned by each child in each moment. At best we can only hazard a very hazy guess at the meaning that a child is constructing from the stimuli that he or she is exposed to in any moment. How limiting to decide that we KNOW what this child needs to know, and how best to deliver that knowing to him or her, and the exact timeframe in which it must be accomplished.


I have heard teachers pronounce with great authority that “this child is behind where they should be”, “they are not at grade level in their reading/maths/you name it…”. Imagine if we flipped this dialogue on its head and started to try to understand what each child is actually learning right now? Imagine if schools could let go of the tiny little white envelope they have been living in forever and figure out how to support the emergence of an ever richer and more diverse technicolour of learning? Imagine if we could let go of the educational monoculture that we have been imprisoned in for so long and explore what educational biodiversity looks like?


Strangely enough, the concept of educational freedom actually terrifies people. So many parents tell me they would never choose a learning environment like Misty Meadows for their children. “What if my kids don’t learn what they are supposed to?” “What if they are left behind their peers?” “What if there is a whole lot of stuff my children need to know, and if they aren’t forced to learn it, they will fail to have a good life/earn a living/succeed?” It is amazing how many parents really think these things. They don’t trust their children to learn what they need to know to succeed in their own lives. They suspect their children might be “less-than” their peers in the brains department, and that if the child is left to figure things out for him or herself, he might “FAIL”. Many parents also believe that the time spent in formal lessons is directly proportional to what their child will learn, and that therefore more time spent at school (or doing homework) equals more learning in a perfectly balanced equation. Pity humans are not as predictable as that… There is absolutely no guarantee that your child will actually learn what they are “supposed to” at school, or that if they don’t, they will be left behind their peers, or fail in life. There is actually ample proof to the contrary. There is also ample proof that more lesson time very seldom equates directly to more (or better) learning.


So, what if we could let go of those frightened voices in our heads for a moment and explore what else might be possible for our children?


From my own experience I would say the biggest enabler of learning for all children in every instance is joy, and the biggest disabler of learning is stress. When children are stressed, anxious or traumatised they do not learn well, regardless of the learning catalysts offered to them, and when children are enjoying themselves it is impossible for them not to learn, not just from the learning catalysts offered to them, but from all that they experience. Surely then the most important thing a parent can do to support their child learn most effectively is to choose a learning environment that minimises stress and maximises joy? It’s worth considering, isn’t it? Funny how many of us humans are wary of ideas that seem to be too good to be true, isn’t it?


At Misty Meadows I am committed to us staying out of judgement about what learning should look like. I am committed to healing the traumas, stresses and anxieties that prevent children from learning, and to supporting and enabling joy in all of its forms. When you have experienced a group of children in a state of joy with each other, you will understand why this is learning dynamite. All their senses are fully engaged and the construction of rich and multifaceted meaning is truly inevitable when they are like this. Yes, you can offer learning catalysts, but that is all teaching ever is, a catalyst. You cannot force the child to learn from the catalyst – you just offer it and move on. If I had a dollar for every time I have been blown away by a child’s unanticipated construction of meaning (learning) over the last 10 years, I would be rich. We cannot actually know what these children are actually capable of. All we can do is love them, trust them and watch what happens next. I’m truly enjoying the ride.


There is so much more I can say about this topic. For now, I just want to encourage parents and teachers to stay out of judgement about what learning looks like, and whether it is being accomplished effectively if the child does not look like they are learning (read: sitting quietly at a desk with book and pen in hand and a teacher in front of them), or a school doesn’t look like it is teaching. Don’t presume that you know what your child needs, or how it should be given to them. Your child is not you. This child may not process information the same way that you do. This child might think and experience life completely differently from you. In all likelihood that is the case. And that is a good thing!


Being able to spew facts is not proof that a child has learned something valuable to him or herself. Sometimes the journey towards constructing meaning is long and circuitous. I know – I am nearly 50 and I am still putting together building blocks and constructing more and better meaning for myself every day. What if there is no “right answer” as defined by anyone else. What if each child is on his or her own journey to find the right answer for him or herself? How sad if we force them down a straight and narrow path which might actually be a dead end for them, taking them nowhere? The most interesting children are often the ones who don’t seem to be following a recognisable learning path at all. We call them failures, or at best disruptive, but maybe they are the true innovators who will eventually combine all of the many building blocks they have subjectively accumulated into something that nobody else could even have even dreamed of?


My purpose in these blog posts is not to dishearten people, but rather to lower the veil enough that people can start to question whether there might not be another way to support and enable children to thrive as the most capable versions of their own unique selves, well prepared for life after school? I think it is important to acknowledge that what I am suggesting about learning here is not the binary opposite of everything that currently exists under the banner of education, but rather it is a different lens through which to explore what is there and see whether it stands up to what this new perspective has revealed. Is the mainstream approach really a good way to teach children? Is it effectively achieving its objective? Or could there be another way that is more effective? Just think about it….





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