I mention in my book, Creating a Classroom Community of Young Scientists (2nd ed.), that “children are people.” Although this may seem obvious, the “institution” of schooling assumes that children are something less than human. In fact, children (as emotional, thinking, creative, and curious human beings) are totally missing in The No Child Left Behind Act. Children are merely pawns in the politics of education.
Fundamentally, humans are born as learning beings. From the moment children are born, they start exploring and making sense of the world. They learn one of the most abstract “things” we ever learn (i.e., language or languages) and do so within the first few years and with no real “instruction.” They come up with all kinds of explanations about the world (many of them are amazingly complex, but might make natural and social scientists cringe).
Children’s curiosity almost seems like a basic need. They crave learning new things. Certainly from a biological point of view, curiosity leads to learning and learning provides human beings with tools for survival. For parents, the concern is always to what extent can you let children pursue their curiosity? If they curiously explore an electrical socket or a cabinet full of chemicals, they could end up getting seriously injured or worse. However, some parents seem to limit children’s exploration around all kinds of personal issues, like “not wanting to be bothered,” “too noisy,” etc. Then, of course, despite the best intentions of parents, they go to school. In most cases, school is the death nell for the spirit of children, which is filled with wonder and curiosity, intriguing ways of making sense of things, an innate cheerfulness, amazing imagination, and an excitement for learning. Schools immediately try to “control” children and make them conform to some adult standard of behavior. They limit or destroy their imaginations and curiosity. They deaden the very process of learning. It becomes the drill and practice march into stupefication. No more excitement for learning, no imaginative play, no more curiosity, no more exploration — just boredom. I’ve seen this happen to my own children, despite our best efforts keep them excited and curious.
Children are capable of so much more than No Child Left Behind will ever allow them do. Then we test them repeatedly for days on end. And, not only do we test them, but we drill and kill them for months in preparing for the tests. It’s a psychological act of violence that parents should be standing up to and saying “no more!”
If we really think hard about what is important for children, we might find that what schools are doing is just the opposite. Of course, there are many amazing teachers, who work very hard at helping children grow in ways that keep the excitement for learning alive, but they fight an uphill battle against their administrators, other teachers, and parents. It is extremely hard for teachers, especially new teachers who may enter the professional with the right kind of ideals, to pursue the kinds of approaches to teaching and learning that will actually benefit children. Such approaches see children as the producers of knowledge rather than the consumers of knowledge. Children explore, investigate, and generate explanations for what they have found. This what they do naturally. Teachers just need to help them refine these skills, challenge them to go to new heights, support them in whatever ways possible, and take peaks at new perspectives and possibilities.
Gregory Bateson (anthropologist, biologist, a thinker way ahead of his time, and one time husband of Margaret Mead) said there were three ways people can find the limits of the possible: (a) exploration (try out new things, see where one can go, etc.), (b) play (fantasy play, “what-if” play, pretending, experimenting, etc.), and (c) (breaking the official and unofficial rules, not conforming to the status quo, etc.). If we think about famous people who have made significant contributions to society through writing, science, the arts, etc., have these people engaged in any of these three ways of pushing the limits? Do children engage in any of these before entering school? What do schools do when children engage in these?
[* Thanks to Lisa Smith for her painting of the unicorn frog © 1976]
(originally published June 28, 2008)