Can We Please Stop Obsessing About Learning?

Aaron Browder
Apr 1, 2018 · 7 min read

Learning Is as Natural as Breathing, so Why Are We so Preoccupied With It?

A song has just come on the radio — Starlight by Muse. I’m singing along and as it turns out, I know all the words. How did I learn them? I have no idea. I was never taught these words by a teacher. I was never drilled on them, never had to recite them over and over, never needed to take a test. I just picked them up, during the course of hearing the song dozens of times.

I know how to play the piano, though I’ve never taken a piano lesson. I never tried to learn the piano — I never sat down and thought, “I’m going to learn the piano now.” Rather, I decided to learn a song that I liked, and I worked it out note by note. Many songs and a number of years later, I realized that I could play the piano.

Learning and Breathing

I get it. We all want our kids to grow up to be successful, productive members of society. And to do that, they need to learn all the right things as children. And to make them learn these things, we must be vigilant taskmasters throughout their childhoods.

But if you indulge yourself, as I have, to lapse into laziness and neglect your taskmaster duties for a period of time, and then, perhaps several months later, realize by accident that your child has learned an extraordinary amount without a pinch of effort on anyone’s part, you start to wonder whether you really need to be a vigilant taskmaster after all.

That’s what I, along with some 70 Sudbury-model schools, and some 10’s of thousands of unschoolers, have found in our experiences with children. At Sudbury schools, there are no teachers, classes, curricula, or tests. Sudbury schoolers don’t think about learning — they just play, talk, and follow their passions — but 50 years of history tells us that they all learn to read, do math, develop marketable skills, and become successful, productive members of society.

We’ve found that learning is a lot like breathing. If you are worried that you’ll stop breathing if you stop thinking about it (which would be awful and deadly), you’ll obsess about breathing every second of every day and it will be awful. But once you realize that the breathing keeps going when you stop thinking about it, you stop worrying.

The same turns out to be true for children’s learning.

Measurable Learning vs. Everything Else

Both singing and piano are examples of measurable learning. Though I never took a test on singing or piano, I could have. Other examples of measurable learning are biology facts, languages, and times tables.

Our culture is obsessed with measurable learning. We get nervous whenever children are not spending time on it. But as my examples show, measurable learning takes place all the time, whether you measure it or not.

The real clincher is that measurable learning makes up only a tiny fraction of all the learning we do during our lives. The rest is untestable.

I was once hanging out with a preschooler and we had some pencils and scraps of paper, and I asked her what I should draw. Lacking good verbal skills, she drew a shape on her paper and indicated that I should copy it. I copied it and she was thrilled. Soon it was a game where she would draw some squiggly thing, and I would copy it, and she would examine my work before drawing another symbol. We played this endlessly.

I had no idea what my 4-year-old friend found so enjoyable about this game. But I pondered. Maybe she was building a mental model of how symbols work — how people make symbols and how people interpret them. Maybe this was a precursor to writing skills. My point is that it’s totally mystical as far as you or I or any scientist is concerned. If any scientist tries to tell you why this girl is playing this game, with an air of scientific authority, you can go on and roll your eyes. It’s all speculation.

My other point is that this game was educational without a doubt. My 4-year-old friend was learning something — the pieces were falling into place in her brain — and consequently her brain was rewarding her with pleasure. That’s measurement enough for me.

You won’t find mental model building in any school curriculum anywhere, because you can’t measure it and I’d be astonished if you can find someone who understands it.

20 Things That Are More Important To Learn Than Times Tables

  1. How to make a friend
  2. How to deal with rejection
  3. How to read others’ emotions
  4. How to read your own emotions
  5. How to be honest
  6. How to detect a lie
  7. How to tell a story
  8. How to follow a passion
  9. How to make plans
  10. How to bounce back from foiled plans
  11. How to drink a cup of coffee without spilling it onto your laptop
  12. How to come up with an idea
  13. How to sell an idea
  14. How to stand up for your principles
  15. How to say no
  16. How to negotiate
  17. How to accomplish something on your own
  18. How to solve problems no one has solved before
  19. How to learn to use a new piece of technology
  20. How to manage money

You won’t find any of these things in a standard curriculum. Yet, many people have learned these things.

It should come as no surprise. The purpose of school is to teach the subjects that would never be learned outside of school. I like the way James Herndon put it in his book How to Survive in Your Native Land. He mused about how the school teaches all about flax, a food crop from the Old World, but never teaches about corn. The A’s go out to the kids who remember the most facts about flax. Of course the school won’t give A’s to the kids who know all about corn, because they can learn about corn from their grandparents and go to the corn fields and watch it grow and have corn at the dinner table. If a kid knows all about corn it doesn’t prove that he was paying attention in school. But if he knows about flax, he must be a good student.

The good student will go on and learn about flax, but the smart student will realize that flax is an Old World problem, and that we live in the New World, and we don’t care about flax here. So the smart student will walk out of that classroom and learn about real things while living in the real world.

Well, What Should We Obsess About Then?

I think that 21st century Western culture is facing a dilemma. Even if we can accept that we don’t need to worry about algebra and French in order to lead fulfilling, successful lives (and I’m aware that’s a hard sell for many people), we still think we need to obsess about something.

We say, even if kids don’t really need algebra, they need to learn how to learn, or (to pick a random item from my above list) they need to learn how to sell an idea, and we think that we are the ones to teach them. But nobody needs to be taught how to learn (we are born knowing how to learn) and nobody needs to be taught how to sell an idea (we learn that by trying and failing, many times, to sell our ideas, which children do all the time, without the need for adult intervention).

The dilemma is this: the picture of children learning without adult intervention is a picture of a world where educators are not needed, and where parents are only needed to provide a safe, loving environment for their children. We are terrified of being irrelevant.

But adults throughout almost all of human history were not bothered by this. To them, it was enough that children needed adults for friendship, food, safety, role modeling, and occasional advice. They knew these things and knew they were not irrelevant.

So can we stop worrying about learning? Can we stop with the educational games and learning objectives? Can we go on a nature hike without a clipboard that says things like identify plantsand make scientific hypotheses? Can’t we just listen to the sounds of birdsong and leaves crunching underfoot and enjoy it?

Can we go to Brazil without worrying about foreign language learning and multicultural studies and instead just take it all in and let our hearts fill with wonder? Can’t we just explore the cities and wilderness and get excited about each new thing we discover?

Can we use computers without a rubric for typing skills and using search engines and installing software? Can’t we just accept that a kid who wants to play Roblox is going to have to figure out how to type “Roblox” into a search engine and install the software before he can play?

Can we stop hovering over children, nervously reminding them to breathe?

Children will learn. We don’t need to worry about it. They don’t need to worry about it. Every moment spent worrying about learning is a moment not spent immersed in experience, looking, listening, thinking, trying, growing.

Aaron Browder

Written by

Aaron Browder staffs The Open School in Southern California. He enjoys playing strategy games, writing software, and reading about science and philosophy.

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