“Children do not need to be forced to learn. They know how and they are good at it.” -- John Holt, How Children Learn
In his book, Insult to Intelligence, Frank Smith, Ph.D. says, “The hardest problem for the brain is not learning, but forgetting. No matter how hard we try, we can’t deliberately forget something we have learned. It is truly catastrophic when we learn that we can’t learn.”
One of the most powerful lessons school teaches children is, "You are not a good learner." Despite the fact that children’s brains are superb learning instruments, schools always claim that "failure" is a kind of sickness, or worse, "bad behavior." Real or imaginary disabilities are given clinical-sounding labels like “dyslexia,” “ADHD,” etc. in order to create the impression that physical abnormalities are involved. And yet, what is it schools expect children to "succeed" in? Classrooms force students to engage in tedious, time-consuming, often-stressful nonsense, while rewarding or punishing them with meaningless marks and grades.
Schools make people dependent and easy to control -- characteristics that are the exact opposite of education. Once this dependent attitude toward learning is absorbed through the schooling experience (including, for some, being drugged), it can last a lifetime, destroying autonomous development or, in the words of the veteran Japanese teacher Yoshio Kuryu, “contributing to the student’s mental suicide -- an end to thinking; a closing down.”Yet, under those insane circumstances, if a child’s behavior does not conform to an arbitrary standard, or if his interest is not engaged, and he does not learn a particular thing, the ‘problem’ is always blamed on the child, never on the school.
The key to learning is interest, not school-induced ‘motivation.’ There has never been a relationship between school and what children are interested in learning. But when children are distracted or seem disinterested or fidgety, schools routinely decide that something is wrong with the child’s brain, even though there is no evidence of it.
Can we avoid any of the above madness? Maybe. Smith wrote a set of conditions that must exist in order to prevent the lesson, “I can’t learn,” from being absorbed. He wrote the following Learners’ Manifesto:
1. The brain is always learning. We learn exactly what is demonstrated by people around us. Schools must stop trying to teach through pointless drills, activities and tests.
2. Learning does not require coercion or irrelevant reward. We fail to learn only if we are bored, or confused, or if we have been persuaded that learning will be difficult. Schools must be places where learning can take place naturally -- by desire, not force.
3. Learning must be meaningful. Schools must change themselves, not try to change us, to ensure we understand what we are expected to learn.
4. Learning is incidental. We learn while doing things that we find useful and interesting. Schools must stop creating environments where we cannot engage in sensible activities.
5. Learning is collaborative. We learn by apprenticing ourselves to people who practice what they teach
6. The consequences of worthwhile learning are obvious [We use what we learn]. Schools, teachers and parents should not have to rely on marks, scores or tests to discover if we have learned.
7. Learning always involves feelings. We remember how we feel when we learn or fail to learn. Schools must not treat learners like machines.
8. Learning must be free of risk. If we are threatened by learning, then the learning will always threaten. Schools must recognize that continual testing [and many other of their practices] are intellectual harassment.
The lesson of Smith’s list is that schools are bad places for learning, especially the public schools. They violate all of those recommendations, with every child, all the time. Smith’s book describes what goes on in the typical school and sums it up best in one chapter, called “The Nonsense Industry.”
It’s little wonder that more and more people are choosing alternative schools and homeschooling for their children, where they can skip the lesson that says they can’t learn.
Ned Vare is an architectural designer, artist and author, a former private school teacher, rancher, businessman, elected official.
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