Just Leave Them Alone . . . and they will learn

My daughter Lisa and her little man Brecken--so tired!

My daughter Lisa and her little man Brecken–so tired!

Feeling a little bit lost today.  After the hoopla of last week’s family reunion, it is awfully quiet around here.  We had (I think) close to 70 people at one time including 9 of my grandchildren, both daughters, and our granddaughter and her little one.  The kids discovered the joys of two golf carts and went from inexperienced drivers to grand prix pros in 3 days.  I felt like I should tip them every time they brought me home.  We also did boating days, swimming days, a river tubing ride with 26 people and lots and lots of food.  It was crazy—but so much fun.

Another reason I’m feeling a bit lost is that school will be starting soon and this year I opted not to teach as an adjunct at Northwest Tech.  I’ve got a lot of things in the works, but it feels strange not to be prepping for classes, thinking about students, getting ready . . .  A part of me wants so badly to be a big mouth in education and question many of the current practices and demand something better for our children (and adults).  My 4-year old granddaughter Sofie is going off to full-day pre-Kindergarten so that she will be “prepared.”  Longer days, more rigorous standards, more drill and practice, more testing, more sitting and staring and wondering what the heck  . . .  What will it take for the “experts” to understand that this is not how learning happens.  We are not built to sit on hard surfaces hour after hour and cram stuff into our heads only to have it drift away again because true learning (growing a neural structure) didn’t happen.  If current practices were working, we wouldn’t have 60% of our incoming students at the college level unable to do the work.

It’s sad. Unfortunately, I get to see the students when their curiosity and desire to learn have been squelched by years of feeling stupid. Later this month I’ll be presenting at a Head Start event.  Part of me just wants to say—leave them alone!!!  Let them play.  There is lots of time for facts and figures once their little brains have had a chance to expand and grow.  But there is only this time for them to play and create and explore and be curious.  And it is the most important time, those young years.

Last week I took lots of kids to the blue berry garden to pick berries (and eat them).  We sat on the ground talking, laughing, and admiring the plump blue berries.   A bunch of them even hopped in my car to go to the woods to pick chokecherries.   Their little minds are full of wonder and curiosity.

I compare them to the students I had last spring in our learning community—adults who are so unsure and uncertain about whether they can learn and how they will do, so afraid of feeling stupid.  An Adult Basic Ed teacher I was talking to awhile back said they call her room the “tard yard.”  How awful.

I am somewhat smitten by the work of Sugata Mitra.  He is the man who put a computer in a “hole in the wall” in a small village in India.  He wanted to see what children with few educational opportunities would do if given access to knowledge.  Within a few days the children had learned to surf the net, play games, translate languages and more.  Sugata is now experimenting with building “Cloud” schools using a Student Organized Learning Environment.   Three or four students gather around one computer and are given challenging questions or problems to solve.  The teacher frames things but lets the students figure things out.  They stand aside and let the students learn.

You can listen to his TED talk if you want to learn more.  I’ll add a link at the end of the post.

What excites me is not the technology but the high level of students involved with their own learning.  Children will learn when they are excited and engaged—and when they want to learn.  So will adults.  Our world today is such that the minute we have a desire for knowledge or understanding about something, we hop on the internet and find good sources of information.  Milt and I built and plastered our straw bale house relying on the internet and a few books—no experience necessary!

When I went to graduate school at St. Mary’s University I did an independent master’s program.  In one of the early seminars one of the faculty members said, “Do no busywork.  Make what you are studying relevant to what you want to know.”  Instead of taking “courses” I charted my own course studying the brain, research technique, structural thinking.  If a book I had listed in my study program proved to be useless, I set it down and found another one.  You can’t imagine what a liberating educational experience that was.  To be given permission to study only what I was keenly interested in?  What a thought . . .

So, we slide towards autumn.  Stay curious and “chart” your own course.  We were, as my good friend Rita writes, “Born to learn.”

Sugata Mitra TED Talk


And if you are a teacher or parent, please do read this book.

Dr. Rita Smilkstein’s book, We’re Born to Learn.



And I can’t help but feel sad for Robin Williams.  What was going on in his mind at that moment?

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Just Leave Them Alone . . . and they will learn — 3 Comments

  1. I love reading your Blog Jamie. I remember you talking about your teaching and that you were at a crossroads in current position.

  2. Jamie, we have so much in common. I am always hopeful after I read your position on education. I think there are so many great strategies that teacher guides can use to encourage interest for learners. One that I came across in my teacher was called a web quest. The following link gives you a little idea of what is involved, but basically it is tool that gives some guidance yet enough autonomy to create an environment on line that encourage thinking skills
    I believe that we need our education offerings for our future to have a lot to do with personal interests. We need to diversify our approach and be creative.
    I could talk about this all day. Missing you.

  3. I got through the same basic education as you, having attended from 1957 – 1969. I managed to keep my grades up and get through it under threat of scorn from parents. Fortunately it wasn’t terribly difficult but never anything I enjoyed. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I discovered how much I like learning and found a way that suited me just fine, and still does to this day – on my own. I learn what I want to or need to know at any given point in time. Whether you’re teaching in a formal classroom or not, I’m sure you will always be doing what you can to help others. Thanks for the post.

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