Who are children and how do they learn?

If the reason that our mechanistic education system is failing is because children are not standardised machines that need to be told what to do all the time, but rather they are organisms, then how do organisms actually function?

There is a fairly new multi-disciplinary field of study called Biomimicry, which studies how natural systems function. Biomimicry was popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, in which Biomimicry is defined as a "new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems".

Biomimicry has focused on identifying the types of strategies that all natural organisms are using to survive and thrive on planet earth. With as many as 30 million different species on planet earth, this might sound like an impossible task, but upon closer inspection biomimics have found that many creatures have functional similarities (they function using similar operating strategies) even though they all seem completely different (because the outcomes from adopting these strategies are diverse). Biomimics therefore focus on identifying the consistent and repeated patterns (survive and thrive strategies) in nature that all successful natural organisms share. They have identified a short inclusive list of what they called “life’s principles”, which are the operating strategies that all successful natural organisms share.

Biomimicry’s Life Principles:

  • Nature builds from the bottom up

  • Nature self-assembles

  • Nature optimises rather than maximising

  • Nature uses free energy

  • Nature cross-pollinates

  • Nature embraces diversity

  • Nature adapts and evolves

  • Nature uses life-friendly materials and processes

  • Nature engages in symbiotic relationships

  • Nature enhances the biosphere.

If we know that children are natural organisms, and we know that all natural organisms adopt these similar functional strategies to survive and thrive, then we can know that children will use these operating strategies to survive and thrive too.

One of these strategies is ‘adapting and evolving’ – another expression for the process of adapting and evolving is ‘continuous learning’. Therefore, one of the inbuilt operating strategies of children is that they learn continuously. We can also say with confidence that the way in which this continuous learning evolves for children is by building it from the bottom up. We can say that children self-assemble their learning. We can say that children optimise (rather than maximising) what they learn. We can say that children learn through cross-pollination of ideas with others (both learning from others and sharing what they know with others). We can say that children learn by embracing diversity (learning lots of different things in lots of different ways from lots of different sources). And we can say that children learn by engaging in symbiotic relationships (finding others who support their learning and whose learning they in turn support).

By these definitions, learning is a completely natural process for children (it is in their DNA), and not something that they need to be taught how to do. When we look for evidence of this it is everywhere. Look at how babies learn to sit and then stand and then walk and then communicate in a language that is extremely complex, all by the age of about two. These are arguably the most complex tasks that humans ever have to learn, and all human babies learn how to do all of these things before going to school. The way that babies learn how to do these things is by following the learning processes I have described above. They build their knowledge from the bottom up by watching others doing these things, trying them out for themselves, failing, and trying again. They self-assemble and evolve their skills by making continuous small improvements until the process is mastered. Babies do not learn these skills in complete isolation – they need connections with others (cross-pollinating and symbiotic relationships) who, for example, model the use of language for them.

Although human beings do not arrive on earth already knowing everything they need to know in order to succeed as a human, the ability to construct learning using these operating strategies defined by Biomimicry is programmed into their cells before birth. The way that humans reach their full potential as human beings is by exercising these operating strategies to create meaning for themselves out of the information in their world.

It is important to remember that although the ability to learn is in their inbuilt DNA, there is no guarantee of the quality of their actual learning, because their actual learning depends on the quality of their learning environment. I will discuss this in more detail later, but for now it is important to know that as with all organisms, potential is only potential until it is converted into reality. Certain environments are not conducive to thriving organisms and so even though an organism might have all the potential in the world, it will not flourish in a poor quality environment.

This understanding of how children actually learn gives us insight into why our mechanistic approach to education is failing.


Children are born skilled learners. All children are intelligent in different ways (They have multiple different types of intelligence and learn in many different ways). They always construct (self-assemble from the bottom up) their own learning in ways that make sense to them, but they can be supported in this process by enabling learning environments. Their desire to learn is stifled by standardisation, coercion, and irrelevance to their lives. They are naturally horizontal processors and often find siloed vertical learning processes (subjects) illogical. They are more highly motivated by the desire to know something than by extrinsic rewards like good marks. All children are capable of highly creative thought (when not educated out of it), and their curiosity thrives when they have an abundance of free time. They learn more effectively in collaborative groups than in isolation.

When I researched other peoples’ perspectives on how children learn I found many validations of this definition of how children learn. In addition I found many explanations of why children fail to thrive in our existing education system based on these new understandings of how children actually learn. I have briefly summarised some of these perspectives below:

1. Children are born skilled learners (long before going to school)

As I have already explained, as natural organisms children use the same basic operating strategies as all other natural organisms. As with all other natural organisms, learning is a natural process that children are engaged in even before they are born and they use the same broad learning strategies throughout their lives.

Daniel Quinn, an American writer and cultural critic best known for his novel Ishmael (published in 1992), wrote an essay entitled ‘Schooling – The Hidden Agenda’ in which he describes the need for schooling as being bolstered by the myth that children will not learn unless they are compelled to, in school. ‘It is part of the mythology of childhood itself that children hate learning and will avoid it at all costs. Of course, anyone who has had a child knows what an absurd lie this is. From infancy onward, children are the most fantastic learners in the world. If they grow up in a family in which four languages are spoken, they will be speaking four languages by the time they're three or four years old - without a day of schooling, just by hanging around the members of their family, because they desperately want to be able to do the things they do’.

He goes on to say ‘Anyone who has had a child knows that they are tirelessly curious. As soon as they're able to ask questions, they ask questions incessantly, often driving their parents to distraction. Their curiosity extends to everything they can reach, which is why every parent soon learns to put anything breakable, anything dangerous, anything untouchable up high - and if possible behind lock and key. We all know the truth of the joke about those childproof bottle caps: those are the kind that only children can open. This comes about because the desire to learn is hardwired into the human child just the way that the desire to reproduce is hardwired into the human adult. It's genetic. If there was ever a strain of humans whose children were not driven to learn, they're long gone, because they could not be culture-bearers. Children don't have to be motivated to learn everything they can about the world they inhabit, they're absolutely driven to learn it’.

Quinn asserts that children spend most of their time in school learning stuff that no one growing up in our culture could possibly avoid learning anyway. He offers the example of children learning the names of the primary colours and says ‘Wow, just imagine missing school on the day when they were learning blue. You'd spend the rest of your life wondering what colour the sky is’. In response to the often-cited opinion that children will not learn to read or write if they do not go to school, Quinn asserts that ultimately children would learn to read the same way that they learned to speak: ‘by hanging around people who read and by wanting to be able to do what these people do’.

I have seen many people learning how to use new technology the way Quinn describes – including myself. I have also watched many of the uneducated farm workers who live near me, who are totally technologically ‘sussed’ thanks to their social network, which collectively values communications technology (and particularly smartphones) above all of life’s so-called necessities, including food. Many of them would rather spend their income on airtime than sustenance because the airtime nourishes an important part of them that food doesn’t – the desire to belong. I was taught how to use WhatsApp by my domestic worker who knows her way around a smartphone better than I ever will thanks to regular tutorials from her friends.

John Holt, one of the founders of the Unschooling Movement in the 1960s, wrote an essay entitled ‘School is Bad for Children’ originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in February 1969. In this essay Holt points out, ‘Children do not need to be made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want to, and they know how’.

He says: ‘Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn't know, better at finding and figuring things out, and more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent than he will ever be again in his schooling - or, unless he is very unusual and very lucky, for the rest of his life. Already, by paying close attention to and interacting with the world and people around him, and without any school-type formal instruction, he has done a task far more difficult, complicated and abstract than anything he will be asked to do in school, or than any of his teachers has done for years. He has solved the mystery of language. He has discovered it - babies don't even know that language exists - and he has found out how it works and learned to use it. He has done it by exploring, by experimenting, by developing his own model of the grammar of language, by trying it out and seeing whether it works, by gradually changing it and refining it until it does work. And while he has been doing this, he has been learning other things as well, including many of the "concepts" that the schools think only they can teach him, and many that are more complicated than the ones they do try to teach him’.

Holt says about children who start school: ‘In he comes, this curious, patient, determined, energetic, skilful learner. We sit him down at a desk, and what do we teach him? Many things. First, that learning is separate from living. "You come to school to learn," we tell him, as if the child hadn't been learning before, as if living were out there and learning were in here, and there were no connection between the two. Secondly, that he cannot be trusted to learn and is no good at it. Everything we teach about reading, a task far simpler than many that the child has already mastered, says to him, "If we don't make you read, you won't, and if you don't do it exactly the way we tell you, you can't". In short, he comes to feel that learning is a passive process, something that someone else does to you, instead of something you do for yourself”.

2. Children have multiple different types of intelligence and personalities and make sense of the world in many different ways (All children are intelligent in hundreds of different ways)

Diversity is one of the key operating strategies of all organisms – they do not all think and learn in the same way, or at the same speed, because if they did so there would be no diversity. Increasingly studies are emerging which prove that children are diverse and DO NOT all learn in the same way or at the same speed, and that trying to teach them all in the same way is very restricting for them.

Howard Gardner, an American Developmental Psychologist wrote about what he called ‘Multiple Intelligences’ in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In this book Gardner differentiated intelligence into specific (primarily sensory) ‘modalities’, rather than seeing it as dominated by a single general ability.

Gardner argues that there is a wide range of cognitive abilities, but that there are only very weak correlations among them. For example, the theory postulates that a child who learns to multiply easily is not necessarily more intelligent than a child who has more difficulty on this task. The child who takes more time to master multiplication may best learn to multiply through a different approach, may excel in a field outside mathematics, or may be looking at and understanding the multiplication process at a fundamentally deeper level. Such a fundamental understanding can result in slowness and can hide a mathematical intelligence potentially higher than that of a child who quickly memorises the multiplication table despite possessing a shallower understanding of the process of multiplication.

Gardner defined nine broad types of intelligence, including:

  • Musical or Rhythmic intelligence (someone who prefers auditory learning)

  • Visual or Spatial intelligence (someone who has spatial judgement and can visualise in their mind’s eye)

  • Verbal or Linguistic intelligence (someone who displays a facility for words and languages)

  • Logical or Mathematical intelligence(someone who can use logic, abstractions, reasoning, numbers and critical thinking effectively)

  • Bodily or Kinesthetic intelligence (someone who learns better by involving muscular movement)

  • Interpersonal intelligence (someone who interacts well and communicates effectively with others)

  • Intrapersonal intelligence (someone who has introspective and self-reflective capacities)

  • Naturalistic intelligence (someone who relates closely to his natural surroundings)

  • Existential intelligence (someone with “spiritual” intelligence)

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences does not preclude that some people might be generally more capable across the full spectrum of intelligences than others, but what it does suggest is that children might need to be supported in learning in ways that are in harmony with their dominant intelligence and not all taught in the exact same way.

Reggio Emilia, which is an approach to pre-school education developed originally by Loris Malaguzzi in Italy in the 1940s, talks about ‘the hundred languages of children’ and is based on the premise that all children are intelligent in different ways and construct meaning out of their world using ‘a hundred languages’ (this is not referring to actual languages, but rather to types of intelligence, or different temperaments, or cultural perspectives, or any other types of diversity which might result in a child having a different perspective on a specific situation). Reggio gives value to each and every child’s ‘language’ as being equally valid and intelligent.

Waldorf Education takes a child’s temperament into consideration and actually groups children of similar temperaments together in the classroom because it understands that children of the same temperament are more likely to work well together. An aspect of temperament which also affects how children learn is whether they are morning people or night owls. Most people have a personal preference for what time of day they function at peak efficiency and they will seem more intelligent at this time of day than at other times of day.

To this point, there have also been studies done on the difference in learning styles of boys versus girls. A study entitled Teaching Boys: A Global Study of Effective Practices (by Dr Reichhart and Dr Richard Hawley) found that many boys are not thriving at traditional schools. They determined that this was because boys were struggling with the teaching methods. This study identified the most effective lessons for teaching boys as including:

  • Those that result in an end product (booklet, poem, comic strip, machine, catapult)

  • Those structured as competitive games

  • Those requiring motor activity

  • Those requiring boys to assume responsibility for the learning of others

  • Those requiring boys to address open questions or unsolved problems

  • Those requiring a combination of competition and teamwork

  • Those focusing on independent, personal discovery and realisation

  • Those that introduce drama in the form of novelty or surprise.

3. Children construct their own learning in ways that make sense to them

Many pre-school learning approaches such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia are constructivist in nature because of their well researched observations that children cannot be told what or how to learn, but they can be stimulated to construct their own learning by being offered a rich and supportive learning environment (also called a prepared learning environment).

The Reggio Approach is explicitly premised on the understanding that children learn (build their knowledge) from the bottom up, they self-assemble their knowledge using their “hundred different languages” as described above. Reggio educators understand that all children seek to optimise what they know rather than maximising what they know (they find out just enough to move them to the next step in their learning process without getting bogged down in details along the way), and they adapt and evolve constantly in response to their environment by learning from and teaching others.

The Reggio Approach acknowledges that even when all children are given the same information in exactly the same way, they will not necessarily understand that information in the same way because each child’s process of constructing their own learning from these building blocks is unique to them. Another way of saying this is that all children self-organise their own learning in ways that make sense to them.

Children can and do use all sorts of information as building blocks to construct their own meaning and learning. This can include visual, written, audio, olfactory, gustatory and kinaesthetic stimuli, both naturally occurring and manmade. Because it is impossible to pre-determine exactly what building blocks a child will use to construct his or her learning, offering a richly prepared learning environment and letting the child pick and choose what to play with works very well in supporting children to construct their own learning.

4. Because children each construct their own learning in their own way, they feel stifled by standardisation

When children are forced to operate within the constraints of a standardised education model they feel artificially constrained. Attempting to grow all children in exactly the same way (like an agricultural monoculture) requires a lot more intervention than allowing them to learn and grow according to their natural predispositions would. A one-size-fits-all approach to education would be highly efficient if children really did function identically in every way, but this is clearly not the case as more and more research is indicating.

Sir Ken Robinson, a world-renowned British education and creativity expert (now living in the USA) in a very amusing talk at the RSA is 2010 entitled “Changing Education Paradigms” describes how most schools are organised on factory-type lines – ‘with ringing bells, separate facilities, uniforms, and teaching conducted like a production line, complete with efficiency testing at the end’. He questions the factory-like system of grades: ‘We still educate children by batches – we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? That the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture?’He suggests that these features only make sense if one’s starting assumption is that children operate as predictably as machines. Then a factory-style environment would undoubtedly be the most efficient way to educate them.

Robinson then goes on to argue that ‘If you are really interested in the model of learning you don’t start from a production line mentality. It is essentially about conformity and standardisation, and it is increasingly about that as you look at the growth in standardised testing and standardised curricula’. Robinson is in favour of taking intellectual diversity and divergent thinking into consideration as an alternative to the factory-like mentality of our existing system. Robinson’s talk was turned into an animated presentation, which, by the time I viewed it on You Tube, had been viewed over 10 million times. This illustrates the popular appeal of the idea that education needs to move away from its current factory-like obsession with standardisation and conformity and embrace intellectual diversity.

John Taylor Gatto won the New York City Teacher of the Year Award in 1990. His absolutely brilliant acceptance speech for that award was entitled Why Schools Don’t Educate and, despite now being twenty five years old, it is still highly relevant to today, and well worth the time to read. In this speech he explains his perspective that ‘schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic human beings whose behaviour can be predicted and controlled’. His hypothesis is that our current model of education ‘doesn't work because its fundamental premises are mechanical, anti-human, and hostile to family life’. He says: ‘Lives can be controlled by machine education but they will always fight back with weapons of social pathology - drugs, violence, self-destruction, indifference, and the symptoms I see in the children I teach’.

We need to recognise the inherent learning biodiversity of children and stop stifling so many of them by treating them like a learning monoculture.

5. The process of learning is not linear and predictable for every child

Assuming that all children learn in the same consistent and predictable order completely ignores the fact that not all children think in the same way. For example, some children are right-brained (big picture) thinkers who absorb the whole subject in what seems to be a non-sequential way, while others are left-brained (mechanical or process) thinkers who like to go from step A to B to C to D.

A recent breakthrough in understanding that children learn differently and at different speeds (and not always in predictable ways) comes from the work of Salman Khan at The Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org). The Khan Academy is a free online curriculum developed by Salman Khan in the USA, originally to help his cousins with their maths. It now has over one million students per month accessing its content.

As part of a talk that Salman Khan presented at TED in 2013 he described a project that he has undertaken with a group of teachers in North Carolina. The teachers have online access to a ‘dashboard’ of their class’s performance as they work through different maths modules. After each module the children work through a series of examples – once they have ten right answers the system automatically moves them to the next module as they have proven sufficiently that they understand the concept with ten right answers in a row. With the teachers’ dashboard they are able to see which children are struggling with a particular concept (getting answers consistently wrong) and they can go to help that student directly. Khan says that what the teachers in this study realised was that often, when a child got stuck on one concept and needed the teacher’s help to understand it, that did not necessarily mean that they would get stuck on any other concept in a similar fashion. Sometimes they would actually speed up to even faster than other students once they had made a breakthrough. Khan says in his talk that this model of instant feedback has allowed these teachers to understand that often judgements about a child’s intelligence or ability are just a matter of timing. This interactive approach has the potential to prevent a lot of children from being labelled as ‘stupid’ because of a failure to grasp one concept as quickly as their peers.

Khan’s experiment using the teacher’s dashboard would indicate that children make sense of things in different ways and at different speeds, and that their learning is not linear at all, nor is it predictable based on how they have learned things in the past. This experiment would indicate that our traditional system which teaches all children the same things in the same way and at the same speed is not enabling all children to learn in ways that are natural to them, because all children’s learning is not linear or predictable.

Sir Ken Robinson has said ‘We are enthralled to the idea of linearity in education. Life is not linear, it is organic. We create our lives symbiotically as we experience life. Learning is certainly not linear or predictable because life is not linear or predictable’.

6. Children are more highly motivated by the desire to know something (intrinsic factors) than by rewards like good marks (extrinsic factors). Their intrinsic desire to know things includes the desire to know and understand themselves.

Daniel Pink, in his book titled ‘Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us’ talks about how children develop the capacity for thinking, learning, developing good judgement and succeeding in life. He explains that ‘our traditional understanding of motivation is – if you reward what you want then you’ll get more of that, and if you punish what you don’t want then you’ll get less of that. The carrot and stick model is greatly successful to motivate people during routine tasks, but miserable for motivating people to do creative, conceptual tasks. Large rewards lead to poor performance – creative work needs more human and less material incentives’. Pink explains the three non-material incentives that motivate people the most are: autonomy (self-directed engagement), mastery (the intrinsic need to get better at stuff) and purpose (a transcendent purpose in one’s life). He says: ‘Human beings are purpose maximisers, not profit maximisers’. Children are small humans, so this is as true of children as it is of adults.

Michael Schetinin – the Director of the highly innovative Tekos School in Russia says ‘The traditional school is not in tune with children's nature. It is not really for them. It does not contribute either to the flourishing of their talents or to the development of their spiritual, physical and moral health. Like a knife-blade, it is aimed at a very narrow target: knowledge-know-how-habits. The focus is not on the child, not on the individual, not on the development of the immeasurable range of the abilities he is endowed with, of his whole universal selfhood’.

Gatto, in his acceptance speech for New York Teacher of the Year in 1990 said: ‘The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of thousands of years. A close study of what big people were up to was always the most exciting occupation of youth, but nobody wants to grow up these days and who can blame them?’

After listing the many things that the children are NOT, Gatto goes on to say: ‘It's high time we looked backwards to regain an educational philosophy that works… At the core (would be) the belief that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge. Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements to place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of galloping a horse or making it jump, but that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Sometimes the problem is the problem of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customs house. Can you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his ability to do anything?”

7. Children perform better when trusted to perform rather than coerced to do so

This is linked to the previous point about what motivates children – not only are they motivated more by wanting to know something than because they will be rewarded for knowing it, but likewise they are actively put off knowing things when they feel coerced into knowing them.

Peter Gray, in an essay entitled ‘Why Children Protest Going to School’ comments that ‘Our system is premised on the belief that children require top-down direction and coercion to behave appropriately and perform well’. Gray argues that with this approach our schools work against children’s natural instincts, and not with them. He bases his opinion on our species’ origins as hunter-gathers, and the skills and abilities that were valued by our ancestors, including great personal initiative and creativity, and trust that people would share and cooperate because they wanted to and it benefitted everybody collectively. Gray suggests that children have instincts that drive them to try to educate themselves through their free play, exploration, and socializing, but schools insist that they give up that freedom and do what they are told to do.

George Bernard Shaw said: ‘What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.’ Shaw reputedly commented that the traditional curriculum is based on the assumption that children must be pursued by knowledge because they will never pursue it themselves. ‘It was no doubt noticed that, when given a choice, most children prefer not to do school work. Since, in a school, knowledge is defined as schoolwork, it is easy for educators to conclude that children don't like to acquire knowledge without school. Thus schooling came to be a method of controlling children and forcing them to do whatever educators decided was beneficial for them’.

Gatto, in the acceptance speech already mentioned above, questioned this coercive model saying: ‘The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders‘. Our authoritarian education model shows a basic lack of trust in children’s ability and/or desire to become educated without being coerced to do so. Actually, many recent studies have found that children actively rebel against being forced to learn (especially when the method and content is defined by the school and not by themselves), but when left to their own devices they seek out all sorts of learning for themselves.

8. Children are capable of learning things on their own (without an expert teacher telling them how to learn it)

Children like to go and find information themselves, or to work together with their peers to evolve their collective learning. In fact, as I have already described, this is the most natural way for children to learn and they do this all the time from the moment they are born.

There are many highly successful examples of learning models emerging that do not rely on an expert teacher – these include such models as inquiry-based learning or problem-based learning and Dr Sugata Mitra’s Self-Organised Learning Environments (or SOLES), both of which I will describe in more detail later on this blog.

Research is finding that the teacher as expert model is actually preventing learning from happening any other way and results in teachers spending a lot of time on ‘crowd control’ – trying to hold twenty-five or more different children’s undivided attention. As Salman Khan’s flipping the classroom experiment illustrated, when children are empowered to go and find information for themselves (or to work with their peers to evolve their understanding together and only ask for the teacher’s help when they are stuck), teachers are able to spend more time helping those who actually need their help, and less time acting like riot policemen in their classrooms.

It is my personal experience that the ‘teacher is the expert’ model actually results in highly passive learners continuously waiting for the expert to tell them what to do. This is because our current education system has convinced children that they do not know how to think for themselves and they cannot know anything until they have been taught it at school.

9. Many children’s interest in learning is constrained by having to learn content defined by others.

Children are not interested in learning things that they believe to be irrelevant to their real lives (to who they really are).

In an article entitled ‘Organic Education: A National Imperative’ written by Hugh Osborn (found on the John Hopkins University website), Osborn explains that ’nearly all children, as parents know, have a broccoli stomach that fills up quickly at dinner but is unconnected to their dessert stomach, which can be empty and ready for ice cream no matter how much is in the broccoli stomach. Likewise, children have a "broccoli brain," which is the brain they use (or don't use) at school. It is unconnected to their identity, which is why they reply with "I don't remember" or a shrug when asked how school was. The broccoli brain can, unfortunately, grow to contain hard work, organization, and society itself, so that the student develops antagonistic attitudes toward all of these. Gamers, who are highly horizontal thinkers, despise all things broccoli, which is why any whiff of educational content will instantly kill a video game in the marketplace’.

As I mentioned in a previous post, our current education system assumes that there is a body of knowledge (content) that all children need to know on a grade-by-grade basis in order to be ready for life, and it assumes that this body of required knowledge is the same for everybody, regardless of their interests or their plans for their future. Knowing this body of content (as assessed by tests) is given the highest priority, and yet how do we know that this content is even going to be relevant in the child’s life after school? Many children show no interest in learning what the curriculum is offering them because this content does not interest them – they would rather be fixing car engines or dancing or playing a computer game, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that these pursuits have less value than the standardised curriculum as we see new job opportunities emerging in the unlikeliest of places today.

The content standards that have been set by most education departments in the world lag behind cutting -edge thinking by decades and more, and with the speed at which change is occurring in our world today, most of the content that children learn at school will be dangerously irrelevant by the time they finish school. My sister, who is a scientist, uses the example of quantum physics, which has been the main evolution in the field of physics since Einstein recorded his theory of relativity. Despite the fact that almost all new thinking in physics has been in the field of quantum physics – it is barely touched on in the school physics syllabus, and even most university courses barely get there because there is so much historical content to cover first. History is another example of a subject which dramatically lags behind current events – most schools are still teaching the history of nationalism and the wars of the 20th century, and have not reached globalism, and its huge and exponentially growing impact on our world. Children are finding content-based curricula defined by others to be out of date and irrelevant to their lives, and thus they are failing to apply themselves to learning as defined by the school system.

Thom Markham, an education expert from the USA (see www.thommarkham.com) asked the question: ‘Are content standards still appropriate in education?’ in a blog post he wrote for Mind/Shift. He says ‘How can we decide what a 10th grader should know beyond the core literacies of reading, writing, computation and research? The worldwide culture of innovation, discovery, multi-polarity, interdisciplinary thinking, and rapid change, depends on the explosive potential of the human mind, not entombed truths from the past. Increasingly any standards based curriculum is at odds with the outside world. There is only one resolution to the debate – sooner or later inquiry-standards will take precedence over content-based standards’ (Thom Markham, Mind/Shift).

10. Children’s skills and abilities are multi-dimensional and standardised academic tests are incapable of measuring these skills and abilities

Sir Ken Robinson comments on in his RSA Animates presentation that ‘one of the most limiting aspects of our current system of education is the enlightenment intellectual view that real intelligence consists in the capacity for a certain kind of deductive reasoning… what we think of as ‘academic ability’’. As with Howard Gardner, he is a strong believer that there are many different types of human intelligence, and that humans are by nature extremely creative and innovative, but our current education model only values one type of intelligence: “Deep in the gene pool of public education is the view that there are two types of people: academic and non-academic. The consequence of this is that many brilliant people think that they are not, because they are being judged against this particular view of the mind.’

With this argument Sir Ken builds on the ideas that he expressed in his very amusing 2006 TED talk entitled: Do Schools Kill Creativity? In this talk he focused specifically on his belief that all children have enormous capacities for innovation (all children have tremendous creativity), and that our current school systems squander them by being predicated on the idea of ‘academic ability’ and prioritising maths and science and languages over the humanities and the arts. ‘As children grow up we start to educate them from the waist up… focusing on their heads, and mainly on the left side… Bodies (become) just a form of transportation for the head’. Robinson suggests that the ultimate purpose of our current education system would seem to be to produce university professors. He says that the problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that there are many different types of intelligence and, by ignoring all except ‘academic’ intelligence schools are wasting the gift of the human imagination.

In a follow-up TED talk from 2010 entitled ‘Bring on the Learning Revolution’ Robinson furthers this thinking with the discussion that most humans make very poor use of our talents as a result of having gone to schools that did not value them. ‘Lots of people don’t enjoy what they do – they endure it and wait for the weekend. Some people love what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else – it is not just what they do, but who they are – it speaks to their most authentic selves. But these are a minority of people. The reason for this is that education dislocates people from their natural talents’.

We are in the habit of believing that if a child performs well in tests he is intelligent, and if he does not then he is not. Actually, children’s skills and abilities are complex and multi-faceted as the following list I found posted on the Organic School’s Facebook page explains so well:

“Personal qualities not measured by standardised tests:

  • Creativity

  • Critical thinking

  • Resilience

  • Motivation

  • Persistence

  • Curiosity

  • Question asking

  • Humour

  • Endurance

  • Reliability

  • Enthusiasm

  • Civic-mindedness

  • Self-awareness

  • Self-discipline

  • Empathy

  • Leadership

  • Compassion”

Just as standardised tests fail to value a wide range of personal, social and emotional attributes, so does the focus on academic intelligence fail to value many other life skills that will help children do well in their lives. A capacity for kindness, or emotional resilience, or self-motivation would be potentially more valuable to a child’s life than the ability to solve complex equations, and these capacities should therefore not be valued less than academic intelligence.

11. All children are capable of highly creative thought (when it is not educated out of them by their standardised schooling).

Sir Ken Robinson, in his speech to the RSA in 2010, says ‘you have to be unafraid of being wrong in order to come up with anything original’. In this speech Robinson refers to a study that was done to test divergent thinking amongst pre-schoolers – apparently 98% of the preschoolers tested in this study tested at genius level for divergent thinking, which would illustrate that all children have the capacity to think divergently (to see more than one possible answer for a question – he uses the example question ‘What is a paperclip used for?’ to illustrate how a question could have more than one possible right answer, depending on how it is interpreted). Robinson goes on to mention that the same test was given to the same group of children five years later, and five years after that, and each time the percentage who tested at genius level WENT DOWN dramatically. The third time they were tested only 30% were genius divergent thinkers, which would indicate that school is educating children out of their in-built capacity for creativity and original thinking by making children afraid of being wrong.

12. Children experience life horizontally (as a series of inter-connected, multi-disciplinary experiences) and therefore they find horizontal, multi-disciplinary learning processes more logical than the siloed vertical learning processes called subjects that they learn at school.

Most children’s brains wander from one thought to another and one subject to another in pursuit of an answer to something they are curious about. They are not trying to maximise what they know, they are trying to know just enough to take them to the next step in their horizontal thinking process. Learning vast quantities of inapplicable knowledge in un-connected vertical silos of subjects is decidedly counter-intuitive to this thinking process.

To many children school is just a random collection of classes and activities with no underlying systemic logic. They cannot see the relevance of school subjects in the isolated way in which they are taught. This forced reductionism turns learning into “broccoli” rather than “dessert” for a lot of children (myself having been one of them).

13. Children’s curiosity thrives when they have an abundance of free time and is stifled by being too busy

In an article entitled ‘Doing More Time in School: An Unimaginative, Mean Proposal’ by Peter Gray (found at: www.naturalchild.org ) he questions the US government’s recent commitment to longer school days. He quotes President Obama, who in a speech supporting more forced schooling said: ‘Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular - not with [my daughters] Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.’ Grey rightly questions the logic that says that ‘if children aren’t learning enough in school then they need to start younger and stay more hours each day and more days each year. The debate centres almost entirely on the issue of whether or not we can squeeze a few more points out of kids on standardized tests with more time in school, and how we can afford to pay teachers for the extra time’.

Others have pointed out that many countries that score better than the USA does on international standardized tests require fewer hours of schooling per year to do so. They theorise that the reason for this is that children are not machines who can be pushed to the limits of their efficiency. Without ‘down time’ children burn out quickly. Children need time to play and time to contemplate.

Author Michael Michalko in his book called ‘Creative Thinkering’ says that we need time to incubate ideas – time when we walk away from a problem and allow it to incubate while we do something else. So often the answer miraculously appears while we are busy doing something else. Most schools do not give children this time – there is virtually no unscheduled ‘down time’ in the average school day at all and so children are not incubating creative ideas because their curiosity does not have the time to thrive.

Gatto, in his acceptance speech already mentioned earlier, comments that ‘Out of the 168 hours in each week, my children (in my class) sleep 56. That leaves them 112 hours a week out of which to fashion a self. My children watch 55 hours of television a week according to recent reports. That leaves them 57 hours a week in which to grow up. My children attend school 30 hours a week, use about 6 hours getting ready, going and coming home, and spend an average of 7 hours a week in homework - a total of 45 hours. During that time, they are under constant surveillance, have no private time or private space, and are disciplined if they try to assert individuality in the use of time or space. That leaves 12 hours a week out of which to create a unique consciousness. Of course, my kids eat, and that takes some time - not much, because they've lost the tradition of family dining, but if we allot 3 hours a week to evening meals, we arrive at a net amount of private time for each child of 9 hours. It's not enough. It's not enough, is it? The richer the kid, or course, the less television he watches but the rich kid's time is just as narrowly proscribed by a somewhat broader catalogue of commercial entertainments and his inevitable assignment to a series of private lessons in areas seldom of his actual choice. And these things are oddly enough just a more cosmetic way to create dependent human beings, unable to fill their own hours, unable to initiate lines of meaning to give substance and pleasure to their existence’.

Gatto goes on to say that the development of self-knowledge and curiosity require time and freedom: ‘I want to tell you what the effect is on children of taking all their time from them - time they need to grow up - and forcing them to spend it on abstractions. You need to hear this, because no reform that doesn't attack these specific pathologies will be anything more than a facade. Right now we are taking all the time from our children that they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back, we need to trust children from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need to invent curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop private uniqueness and self-reliance’.

‘…Curiosity is another stubborn quality that thrives on freedom. Curiosity is an active habit - it needs the freedom to explore and move around and get your hands into lots of pots. It needs the freedom to thumb through Science News and stop only where you want to. It needs the freedom to browse through your library's whole shelf of poetry. It needs the freedom to visit the zoo solo, spending an hour with the prairie dog colony and walking right past the giraffes, or vice versa”.

All children are by nature curious, but many do not have the time for their curiosity to thrive.

Gatto also says: “Two institutions at present control our children's lives - television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, non-stopping abstraction...Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships, the one day variety or longer - these are all powerful, cheap and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling”.

14. Children learn more effectively collaboratively than on their own

Outside of school children learn new things by watching and/or asking their peers. We see this particularly in how children learn how to use technology. The speed of learning is rapidly increased in a group, as illustrated by the ‘Hole in the Wall’ education experiment. This experiment was conceived by Dr Sugata Mitra, a technology and education specialist from New Dehli, after he observed children playing in the slums next to his office. He decided to place a computer with broadband internet access in a hole in the wall of his office building and to leave it there and see what happened. The result was that, collectively, the street children figured out how to browse the Internet and use a computer without any external instruction – just building on each other’s learning and teaching each other collaboratively. What is most impressive is that the computer was in English, so they first taught themselves English so that they would be able to use it. This collaborative approach to learning is the natural way that children learn, and has been since human communities first evolved. It is a shortcut to learning because children benefit from the collective wisdom of the group. However, at traditional schools children are expected to sit alone, work alone and get tested alone – in complete isolation from other perspectives that might enhance and/or shift their own. As Ken Robinson says, in conventional schools “collaboration is called cheating”.

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