What can you possibly learn at school? OK, now I have your attention if you’re a teacher, or a teaching assistant, or a parent, or anyone else with a vested interest in the whole ‘learning’ arena, I should clarify that this post is intended towards the system and not the individual professional. I also like to live in a more idealised world than the one I often perceive around me, but there’s no harm in saying it how you think it should be. I like it in that idealised world: things don’t have to be the way they are. So, what is it that the schooling system is able to give children? How to hold a pen and form the basic units of words, the rudimentary aspects of mathematics, some stuff about gravity, or sedimentary rock structures, or something about the Industrial Revolution which, in context, probably has no real context . . .?
I admit that these examples are drawn from my own learning experience, but the point still remains: the things we actually learn are the things we want to learn. I hated doing endless handwriting practice with a blotchy old fountain pen that turned your fingers purple and pruney (looking back on my handwriting exercise books and later letters now, I don’t think I mastered anything close to handwriting skills until about the age of twenty five!); what I learned in maths class was pretty much contained within the following — I don’t and won’t ever need standard deviation, quadratic equations, or logarithms, and here’s how to use a calculator; I have a fair idea of the principles of gravity, but only through practical experimentation; I know that there are different types of rock, but really, a rock is a rock; the Industrial Revolution has no context to my life on account of its dullness.
I was having a pub conversation about play with a colleague the other day, and teaching came into the range of things. I referenced A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, as I tend to do when I talk around these sorts of things, and I’ve written around this subject before, but it’s worth revisiting. Neill was way ahead of his time. If the children want to learn what they want to learn, they will, is what I take from my readings. It’s of some coincidence then that I found myself sat around at the weekend with Dino Boy (3) and his sister, Princess K. (5), as they sucked up all the information I could give them on the subjects they were interested in.
It’s a great responsibility to give information to children, as good teachers will no doubt agree. How do you give information without trying to also sway their opinions on any given subject area? I fail sometimes in this respect. I catch myself in time on other occasions. Despite these intentions, I do find that the children often absorb my conscious and unconscious sensibilities and preferences and they repeat them. I trust, in time, that they’ll have all the information they need from all the sources they look to, to form their own opinions as often as possible.
So, we talk about skeletons and various bones and what our insides look like, and what does the inside of an elephant look like? A few weeks ago I was asked ‘What does snow mean?’ (which, after a battery of questions returned in order to try to reinterpret the question, responded in turn with ‘No, what does snow mean?’ in ever agitated tones, I finally cracked as being ‘What is snow made of?’). I’m then asked days later ‘What does beer mean?’ Trying to explain the fermentation process in beer-making to a three year old is tricky, but apparently acceptable. We watch the football on the TV, and Dino Boy studies the game before asking where all the girls are, which we talk about, and we move on to the purpose of the guy in the middle wearing white when everyone else is wearing blue or yellow.
When we’re out and about we discuss whether aeroplanes need wheels, whether we need to apologise to snails we accidentally step on and crunch in wet weather when they come out, and just how squelchy dead dried up slugs we find really are. The children take in all the information of the world around them, as well as stories of my past adventures and misdemeanours. They listen intently to tales of accidents involving blood and stitches and hospital visits, and they’ll gladly put aside books of pseudo-Barbie Amelia’s politically-correct and anodyne unadventures with the pasty wolf (who’s sorry for being so greedy but who’s ultimately forgiven and corrects the errors of his ways), in favour of the real Little Red Riding Hood, a story with big teeth and all, ‘from inside your head’.
Blood and guts and the workings of frogs’ stomachs, or the like, or how dead things became dead, feature plenty, as does the refrain (re: dinosaurs) of ‘Is that one dead?’ Yes, that one’s dead; they’re all dead; dinosaurs died millions of years ago. The concept of ‘millions’ is difficult for adults, let alone three year olds. ‘How did they all die?’ Translating concepts obviously has its point where information goes astray because comets and meteorites are different things! ‘What’s a comic?’ Dino Boy replied. ‘Not a comic, a comet . . .’ (though I need to revisit this one when he tells me next time that a comet wiped out the dinosaurs, and that doesn’t even take into account the other theories!)
Often, when I ask family children or children I work with what they’ve learned at school today (as a means of conversation starter), there’s usually a quiet pause and a reply along the lines of ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Nothing, really.’ That can’t be the case, can it? Or is it more the fact that children want to block out the things they’ve been told they have to learn? The system wants xyz in their heads; children want what they want. Sometimes the two can cross paths, though I tend to find that this is often when there’s something like pizza making in the offering.
When it comes to it, the information on its own isn’t as important as the connection that’s built in good positive child-adult relationships. Children will take on what they want to learn from those they want to learn it from. Some teachers may have very good relationships with children; some may not. When I see children at after school club in apparent diligent concentration on finishing homework tasks before they go off (or go back) to play, I often sense their action more out of duty. Children despair at having to define their lists of words, or learn the order and constituent elements of the planets of the Solar System when none of this interests them. The work is done not, I feel, because they care about the subject or the subject-master or mistress.
In my idealised world, which isn’t so very far from the one we live in (but maybe just a little too radical for many to entertain), children learn the arts of beautiful handwriting when they want to link the aesthetic of well-formed and meaningful stories to the visual (though, of course, the art of handling pens starts far earlier, though also when they’re ready for it); numbers one to ten are graspable in everyday life, but so too are larger ones, and even made-up ones because we should never underestimate the power of thirty-hundred or a ‘brillion’; the concept of gravity comes to those who wait; a rock is just a rock, unless — or especially, if — you’re hit by one or if you have an urgent early need to understand geology, in which case here’s a hammer; the Industrial Revolution is something that happened a million years ago, or it might as well have done, and it may have helped lay the foundations for the iPad, or mobile phones, or something . . .