Modeling Education on the Natural World

Skeeze, pixabay.com

Nature operates complex systems with awe-inspiring success. We see such systems in Monarch butterfly migration, spotted hyena hunting behavior, the day-to-day life of a honeybee colony, everywhere in nature.

The science of complexity tells us these systems cannot be fully understood when examined in isolation because they function as part of a larger whole. Perhaps surprising to us, complex systems flourish right near the edge of chaos. That’s how nature works.

Any self-organizing system, including a human being, is exquisitely cued to maintain equilibrium. Yet that equilibrium can’t hold for long. That’s a good thing. Consider the pulse fluttering in your wrist. The heart rates of healthy young people are highly variable while, in contrast, the beat of a diseased or very elderly heart is much more regular. An overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

We are attuned to minute fluctuations in our bodies as well as in the world around us and are capable of almost infinite responses to regain balance. Some of these responses occur at a level we can’t consciously detect. Change or disturbance at any level functions as a stimulus to create new options.

Each time we are destabilized, these elegant and complex processes at our disposal give us ways to regain balance. The more potential responses we have, the greater our adaptability.

To me, this has everything to do with education. It tells me that we’re perfectly suited to expand our learning infinitely outward as long as we are not confined by sameness, limited variables, and inflexibility.

As an example, lets compare a curriculum used in a second grade classroom to a flock of Canada geese migrating north. It seems obvious that the geese are all the same species heading in the same direction, surely far less complex than an up-to-date curriculum supported by all sorts of educational resources and a well-trained teacher. But lets look more closely. Geese are self-organized into a highly adaptive system while the curriculum is not. The geese choose to migrate based on a number of factors. Unlike curricula, geese don’t operate by standardized data nor is there any flock leader telling them when it’s time to leave.

Geese fly in V-shaped formations. Flying together is far less physically stressful than flying alone. Each bird flies slightly ahead of the next bird so there’s substantially less wind resistance. Because they’re flying in formation, their wings need to flap less frequently and their heart rates stay lower, helping them conserve energy for the long flight. Flying in formation helps the birds communicate and follow the route more efficiently. They also take turns leading at the head of the V, the most difficult position. Each lead goose is smoothly replaced by another member of the flock after a short turn. That way no single goose is more essential than any other for the flock’s migration. The entire flock is able to respond and adapt to a whole range of conditions.

education complex system,

John Benson, wikimedia commons

In contrast, that second grade curriculum is tightly structured and largely inflexible. It was written thousands of miles away, far removed from the day-to-day interests and concerns of the students or their teacher. Each lesson is broken down into rubrics to better measure adherence to specific standards and is mandated by lawmakers who are heavily influenced by the $81,523,904 spent by industry lobbyists in one year. Students and their teacher are judged by tests put in place by education corporations, even though improved test scores are not associated with success in adulthood.  Learning cued to real world uses, learning that is based on readiness rather than rigid timetables, is real learning. 

Nearly every variable is limited by the curriculum and overall school structure. The most enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is afforded no real time to let students explore subjects in greater depth or to try innovative educational approaches. The fewer potential variables, the more it adaptability is diminished. Remember, an overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

Instead, a truly viable education is modeled on the natural world.  After all, we are living natural systems ourselves.

What principles are found in sustainable ecosystems?

  • cross-pollination
  • diversity
  • self-assembly
  • interdependence
  • adaption
  • balance
  • an undeniable tendency toward beauty

Such principles support and enhance life. These principles can form the core of a living system of education as well. All we need to add is joy.

Based on an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

An Underachiever Named Bart

I was a good student. I wrote neatly and handed my work in on time. Sure, I got in trouble a few times in the early grades, like the time my teacher called home to tell my mother I was a liar. And I had a chronic tendency to get lost in a book during instruction time but in general I was so ridiculously conscientious about my work that teachers would put troublemakers next to my desk in hopes that I’d be a good influence.

For several years I was seated next to a kid named Bart. He was a wiry, high energy kid whose dryly witty asides made it ever more painful for me to pretend I wasn’t laughing. Sometimes he’d blurt out a particularly hilarious observation loud enough for our classmates to hear. The kids would laugh, the teacher would scold. Bart was very smart, especially gifted in math, but he wasn’t very motivated about getting schoolwork finished. He didn’t pay much attention in class either, instead penciling sketches of race cars or caricatures of teachers. Like a lot of very gifted kids, he drifted through school.

I couldn’t imagine why he just didn’t, as our teachers would say, “apply himself.” All the adults in our lives reinforced the same narrow principle: Do the work, follow the rules, and you’ll grow up to be a success.  If I was feeling particularly devout, I’d include Bart and a few other “troubled” kids in my prayers asking that they might have a decent future too.

Once, when we were in fifth grade, Bart and I had a real conversation, the sort that’s rare between boys and girls that age. It was brief and the exact language is lost to time, but he told me something I’d never heard. Never even considered. Basically he said I was the dupe. School itself was a game and we were the pawns. Why did I play along?

It took me a long time to fully understand what he meant, but this changed my opinion of him completely. Bart was honest. He wasn’t an underachiever. He certainly wasn’t troubled. Instead, he did what interested and challenged him, tolerating as much as possible what didn’t. He used ironic humor to express his views of the institution trapping him. I realized he had far more integrity than anyone I knew. He was true to himself.

Our school district was large, so it wasn’t hard to lose track of Bart once we moved on to middle school and high school. I spent those years in clouds of existential angst. I read stacks of ever more complex books, tried to parse out the meaning in music lyrics, and stumbled (often literally) through adolescence.

Meanwhile Bart was doing far more interesting work of his own. His father, wisely, didn’t hassle him much about school. Instead he encouraged Bart’s fascination with computers. Well before the net was available to the public, teenaged Bart was already building search engines for IBM mainframes. Some say that it’s parents, more than teachers, who make the difference in advancing a gifted child’s interests. Bart’s dad seemed to understand that.

What Bart explained to me back when we were 10-year-olds had a profound effect on my worldview. But I hadn’t thought of him for years until a friend told me she’d run into him at our high school reunion. She said there was one guy who looked younger, more relaxed and happier than everyone else there. It was Bart. The rest of our classmates were loaded with financial obligations while Bart had happily retired at 40. He was engaged in charity work and enjoying life.

Bart changed his name to one more common to avoid the publicity common to wildly successful people, so I won’t reveal too many details about him here. What I can say is that Bart’s early work advanced the capabilities of search engines and his advancements are still in use today. This alone made him wealthy enough to retire at 20-something. But he went on to make significant advancements in physics, the space program, and health.

Underachiever indeed.

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out.  ~John Holt

Most Of Us Are Ugly Ducklings

Our early hatching is lauded, our late hatching a reason for worry.

We’re expected from our earliest years be like the other ducklings. (Well, better than others but not stuck up about it.)

If we keep flying when it’s time to swim there’s medication to calm our out-of-bounds impulses. If we like to sing but can’t quack there’s a star chart to reinforce more appropriate sounds.

We’re graded on the dexterity we demonstrate when curling our beaks under our wings at nap time, tested on our ability to dip our heads under water, judged by our willingness to stay in line. Poor results means doing these things over and over again until we thoroughly detest ourselves for not measuring up.

When we don’t do as well as expected we’re told we just need to try harder to be the very best duckling we can be. We’re told that we aren’t living up to our potential. We’re told we need to get our priorities straight (or a growth mindset, or grit, or an attitude adjustment).

Ducklings from more affluent families might be enrolled in perfect-your-waddle coaching camps. Their preening may be assisted and their diets enhanced with imported bugs. Less fortunate ducklings may just get some quack tutoring.

When we’re still not like other ducklings most of us try even harder to be normal. Remember those reindeer who wouldn’t let someone different play their reindeer games? Yeah, peer culture is harsh that way, especially when we’re segregated with our age-mates rather than interacting with many fowl sorts in the larger community.

As adults, we measure our own success against the most attractive and capable ducks. That’s painful, but it’s what we learned from our earliest days on.

This isn’t to besmirch ducks. Ducks are great, particularly at being ducks. But some of us

are swans,

a

or storks,

or kingfishers,

or great blue herons.

Some of us aren’t birds at all.

 We’re frogs,

otters,

squirrels,

or dragonflies.

Every creature in and around the pond is necessary. Each is integral to the larger ecosystem’s wisdom.

We have to be extraordinarily stubborn day after day, year after year, in order to be ourselves.

The ugly ducklings of this world, the ones who still aren’t who they’re “supposed” to be, are the ones with the vision big enough to create a future for us all.

All images in the public domain. 

Learning. It’s Not About Education

free range learning, holistic education, natural learning,

Learning is a whole experience of mind, body, and self in relation to the world

When you pick up an orange you feel its texture and weight in your hand. You breathe in scent emitted by the brightly colored rind. If you’re hungry, you peel and section it to savor piece by piece. A fresh orange has phytonutrients, fiber, minerals, and vitamins that promote health. And it tastes wonderful.

It’s possible to purchase the separate nutritional components of an orange. You simply buy vitamin C, vitamin A, flavonoids, B-complex vitamins, fiber, potassium, and calcium in pill form. Of course replacing an orange with supplements is ridiculously expensive compared to the cost of consuming the fruit itself. And isolated compounds don’t work as effectively in the body as the whole fruit. Besides, where is the sensation of biting into an orange bursting with juice? Lost. Divided into a fraction of the experience.

Imagine being told in your earliest years that pills were superior to food and should replace it as often as possible. Even if handfuls of supplements were deemed more valuable than food by every adult in your life you’d still clamor to eat what you found appetizing. If meal-substitution pills became mandatory for children once they turned five years old, you’d never relate to food (or its replacement) the same way again. The body, mind, and spirit reject what diminishes wholeness.

natural learning, education as a pill,

Don’t argue. Just take it.

Yet that’s an apt analogy for heavily structured education, where learning is set apart from the threads that connect it to what has meaning and purpose for the learner. Conventional education separates learning into thousands of measurable objectives. It has very little to do with a child’s hunger to master a particular skill or thirst to pursue an area of interest, in fact such appetites tend to interfere with institutional requirements. It’s not designed for the whole child but aimed at one hemisphere of the brain, doled out in pre-determined doses and repeatedly evaluated. The most gifted, caring teachers are stuck within systems that don’t acknowledge or understand natural learning. In fact, most of us believe, however grudgingly, that schooling is necessary for learning without recognizing that damage is done.

For the very youngest children, learning is constant. Their wondrous progress from helpless newborn to sophisticated five-year-old happens without explicit teaching. They explore, challenge themselves, make mistakes, and try again with an insatiable eagerness to learn. Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skills and understanding in a way that’s useful to them at the time.

Although we have the idea that learning flows from instruction, when we interfere with natural learning children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that it has nothing to do with coercion. Children often ignore what they aren’t ready to learn only to return to the same concept later, comprehending it with ease and pleasure.  What they do is intrinsically tied to why they do it, because they know learning is purposeful. They are curious, motivated, and always pushing in the direction of mastery.

Learning is a hunger too.

Learning is a hunger too.

But schooling irrevocably alters the natural process of learning for every single child.

  • The very structure of school makes children passive recipients of education designed by others. They cannot charge ahead fueled by curiosity, pursuing interests wherever they lead.  Although interest-driven learning results in high level mastery, the top priority in school is completing assignments correctly and scoring well on tests. Despite what individual children want to learn, value is given to what can be evaluated.
  • Segregated by age, children are limited to examples of behavior, reasoning, and ability from those at a similar level of maturity. They have little exposure to essential adult role models and minimal engagement in community life.  They’re also deprived of the opportunity to practice the sort of nurturance and self-education that happens when children interact in multi-age settings.  Even collaboration is defined as cheating.
  • A child’s natural inclination to discover and experiment is steered instead toward meeting curricular requirements. Gradually the child’s naturally exploratory approach is supplanted by less meaningful ways of gathering and retaining information.
  • The mind and body are exquisitely cued to work together. Sensory input floods the brain, locking learning into memory. Movement is essential for learning. The emphasis in school, however, is almost entirely static, and almost entirely focused on left-brain analytical thinking. Many children ache for more active involvement, but their attempts to enliven the day are labeled behavior problems. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood behavior has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Coming up with the correct answer leaves little room for trial and error. Thinking too carefully or deeply may result in the wrong answer. The right answer from a child’s personal perspective may actually be the opposite of the correct answer, but to get a good mark the child cannot be true to his or her experience. The grade becomes more important than reality.
  • Emphasis on the correct answer squeezes out unconventional thinking. The fear of making mistakes squelches creativity and innovation. After years of being taught to avoid making mistakes, the child has also learned to steer clear of originality.
  • Readiness is pivotal for learning, particularly in reading. In school, reading is used to instruct in every other subject, so the child who doesn’t read at grade level quickly falls behind. The subject matter in school, even when taught well, isn’t necessarily what the child is ready to learn. The way it is presented tends to be indirect, inactive, and irrelevant to the child. Schoolwork repeatedly emphasizes skill areas that are lacking rather than building on strengths, or goes over skills already mastered with stultifying repetition. Neither approach builds real learning
  • The desire to produce meaningful work, the urge to make contributions of value, the need to be recognized for oneself, and other developmental necessities are undercut by the overriding obligation to complete assignments.
  • Conventional education takes the same approach to a six-year-old and an 18-year-old: assignments, grades, tests. Self-reliance and independence doesn’t easily flourish in such a closed container.
  • Children must hurry to do the required work, then change subjects. The information is stuffed into their short-term memories in order to get good grades and pass tests, even though such tests tend to measure superficial thinking. In fact, higher test scores are unrelated to future accomplishments in such career advancement, positive relationships, or leadership. Students aren’t learning to apply information to real life activities nor are they generating wisdom from it. The very essence of learning is ignored.
  • Schoolwork clearly separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. This indicates to children that learning is confined to specific areas of life. A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Absorption and play are on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability. Often this transforms into cynicism.
  • When young people are insufficiently challenged or pushed too hard, they do learn but not necessarily what they’re being taught. What they learn is that the educational process is boring or makes them feel bad about themselves or doesn’t acknowledge their deeper gifts. They see that what they achieve is relentlessly judged. They learn to quell enthusiasm and suppress the value-laden questions that normally bubble up as they seek to grow more wholly into themselves. Gradually, their natural moment-to-moment curiosity is distorted until they resist learning anything but what they have to learn. This is how the life force is drained from education.

We’re so committed to structured, top-down instruction that we impose it on kids beyond the school day. Young people are relentlessly shuttled from the classroom to enrichment activities to organized sports and back home to play with educational toys or apps when there’s very little evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value.

Many of us think that education has always been this way—stuffing information into young people who must regurgitate it back on demand. Based on dropout numbers alone, this approach doesn’t work for at least a quarter of U.S. students. So we advocate copying Finland or Singapore, using the newest electronics, taking away testing, increasing testing, adding uniforms or yoga or chess or prayer. We’ve been reforming schools for a long time without recognizing, as Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.”

free range learning,

Figuring something out is itself a delight.

Structured education is actually very new to the human experience. Worse, it actually undermines the way children are primed to advance their abilities and mature into capable adults. That’s because most of the time humanity has spent on Earth has been as nomadic hunter-gatherers, before the advent of agriculture. This time span comprises approximately 98% of human history. Although our culture and lifestyle have changed considerably, our minds and bodies have not. Like our earliest ancestors we are still tuned to nature’s rhythms, cued to react quickly to danger, desire close interdependence with a cohesive group of people, and need in our earliest years highly responsive nurturing that gradually fosters our abilities.

Studies of isolated groups who continue to live in hunter-gatherer ways have shown us that during this era (and throughout most time periods afterward) babies are breastfed and remain in close contact with their mothers for the first few years. This results in securely attached infants who are more likely to grow up independent, conscientious, and intellectually advanced.

Their children play freely in multi-age groups without overt supervision or direction by adults. Such free play promotes self-regulation (ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control) which is critical for maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

Playfulness can’t be separated from learning. Children watch and imitate the people around them. The child’s natural desire to build his or her capabilities doesn’t have to be enforced. Instruction happens when the child seeks it. The learning environment is particularly rich when young people are surrounded by adults performing the tasks necessary to maintain their way of life. Children naturally learn as they playfully repeat what they see and begin to take part in these real life tasks. Mastering all the skills for self-reliance isn’t easy. Hunger-gatherer children must recognize thousands of species of plants and animals as well as how to best obtain, use, and store them. They must know how to make necessary items such as nets, baskets, darts, carrying devices, clothing, and shelter. They need to learn the lore of their people and pass along wisdom through story, ritual, and art. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to cooperate and share in ways that have allowed humanity to thrive. In such cultures, children learn on their own timetables in ways that best use their abilities.

free range learning

It’s about curiosity and awe.

We don’t have to live as hunter-gatherers do to restore natural learning to children’s lives. Homeschoolers and unschoolers have been doing this, quite easily, for a very long time. Our children learn as they are ready and in ways that augment strong selfhood. They stay up late to stargaze or make music or design video games, knowing they can sleep late the next morning. They may fill an afternoon reading or actively contribute to the community. They have time to delve into topics of interest to them, often in much greater depth and breadth than any curriculum might demand. They explore, ask questions, volunteer, hang out with friends of all ages, take on household responsibilities, daydream, seek challenges, make mistakes and start over. They’re accustomed to thinking for themselves and pursuing their own interests, so they’re more likely to define success on their own terms. Because homeschooing/unschooling gives them the freedom to be who they already are, it pushes back against a world relentlessly promoting narrow definitions of success.

This kind of natural learning isn’t just an antidote to the soul crushing pressure of test-happy schools. It’s the way young people have learned throughout time.

Let children sleep in. Let them dream. Let them wake to their own possibilities.

free range learning, holistic learning, effect of school, school mindset,

This is an excerpt from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

The Benefits of Natural Math

natural math, exploratory math, hands-on learning,

images: public-domain-image.com

Math as it’s used by the vast majority of people around the world is actually applied math. It’s directly related to how we work and play in our everyday lives. In other words it’s useful, interesting, even fun.

We now know babies as young as five months old show a strong understanding of certain mathematical principles. Their comprehension continues to advance almost entirely through hands-on experience. Math is implicit in play, music, art, dancing, make-believe, building and taking apart, cooking, and other everyday activities. Only after a child has a strong storehouse of direct experience, which includes the ability to visualize, can he or she readily grasp more abstract mathematical concepts. As Einstein said, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.”

As parents, we believe we’re providing a more direct route to success when we begin math (and other academic) instruction at a young age. Typically we do this with structured enrichment programs, educational iPad games, academic preschools, and other forms of adult-directed early education. Unfortunately we’re overlooking how children actually learn.

Real learning has to do with curiosity, exploration, and body-based activities. Recent studies with four-year-olds found, “Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning.” Direct instruction also limits a child’s creativity, problem solving, and openness to ideas beyond the situation at hand. Studies show kids readily understand math when they develop a “number sense,” the ability to use numbers flexibly. This doesn’t come from memorization but instead from relaxed, enjoyable exploratory work with math concepts. In fact, math experts tell us methods such as flash cards, timed tests, and repetitive worksheets are not only unhelpful, but damaging. Teaching math in ways that are disconnected from a child’s life is like teaching music theory without letting them plunk piano keys, or instructing them in the principles of sketching without supplying paper or crayons. It simply makes no sense.

One study followed children from age three to age 10. The most statistically significant predictors of math achievement had very little to do with instruction. Instead the top factors were the mother’s own educational achievements and a high quality home learning environment. That sort of home environment included activities like being read to, going to the library, playing with numbers, painting and drawing, learning letters and numbers, singing and chanting rhymes. These positive effects were as significant for low-income children as they were for high income children.

There’s another key difference between kids who excel at math and kids who don’t. It’s not intelligence. Instead it’s related to what researcher Carol Dweck terms a growth-mindset. Dweck says we adopt certain self-perceptions early on. Some of us have a fixed mindset. We believe our intelligence is static. Successes confirm this belief in our inherent ability, mistakes threaten it. People with a fixed mindset may avoid challenges and reject higher goals for fear of disproving their inherent talent or intelligence.  People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, understand that intelligence and ability are built through practice. People with this outlook are more likely to embrace new challenges and recognize that mistakes provide valuable learning experience. (For more on this, read about the inverse power of praise.)

Rather than narrowing math education to equations on the board (or worksheet or computer screen) we can allow mathematics to stay as alive as it is when used in play, in work, in the excitement of exploration we call curiosity. Math happens as kids move, discuss, and yes, argue among themselves as they try to find the best way to construct a fort, set up a Rube Goldberg machine, keep score in a made-up game, divvy out equal portions of pizza, choreograph a comedy skit, map out a scavenger hunt, decide whose turn it is to walk the dog, or any number of other playful possibilities. These math-y experiences provide instant feedback. For example, it’s obvious cardboard tubes intended to make a racing chute for toy cars don’t fit together unless cut at corresponding angles. Think again, try again, and voila, it works!

As kids get more and more experience solving real world challenges, they not only begin to develop greater mathematical mastery, they’re also strengthening the ability to look at things from different angles, work collaboratively, apply logic, learn from mistakes, and think creatively. Hands-on math experience and an understanding of oneself as capable of finding answers— these are the portals to enjoying and understanding computational math.

Unfortunately we don’t have a big data pool of students who learn math without conventional instruction. This fosters circular reasoning. We assume structured math instruction is essential, the earlier the better, and if young people don’t master what’s taught exactly as it’s taught we conclude they need more math instruction. (“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”)

But there are inspiring examples of students who aren’t formally instructed yet master the subject matter easily, naturally, when they’re ready.

1. The experiment done over 85 years ago by Louis Benezet showed how elementary school children can blossom when they’re free of structured math instruction.

2. Homeschooling and unschooling families around the world devote much less time to formal mathematics instruction. Studies indicate their children grow up to succeed in college, careers, and life with greater self-reliance and focus than their schooled peers. Interestingly, two different surveys of grown unschoolers showed that a much higher number of them work in STEM careers than schooled adults. The samples were small but intriguing. More proof? Many of our greatest science, technology, engineering, and mathematics contributors have already emerged from the homeschool community.

3. Democratic schools where children are free to spend their time as they choose without required classes, grades, or tests. As teacher Daniel Greenberg wrote in a chapter titled “And ‘Rithmetic” in his book Free at Last, a group of students at the Sudbury Valley School approached him saying they wanted to learn arithmetic. He tried to dissuade them, explaining that they’d need to meet twice a week for hour and a half each session, plus do homework. The students agreed. In the school library, Greenberg found a math book written in 1898 that was perfect in its simplicity. Memorization, exercises, and quizzes were not ordinarily part of the school day for these students, but they arrived on time, did their homework, and took part eagerly. Greenberg reflects, “In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six year’s worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.” A week later he described what he regarded as a miracle to a friend, Alan White, who had worked as a math specialist in public schools. White wasn’t surprised. He said, “…everyone knows that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff—well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”

We know all too well that students can be educated for the test, yet not understand how to apply that information. They can recite multiplication tables without knowing when and how to use multiplication itself in the real world. Rote learning doesn’t build proficiency let alone nurture the sort of delight that lures students to higher, ever more abstract math.

Conventional math education may also limit our concept of what math can do. As Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin notes in a post titled “Most Math Problems Do Not Have a Unique Right Answer,”

One of the most widely held misconceptions about mathematics is that a math problem has a unique correct answer…

Having earned my living as a mathematician for over 40 years, I can assure you that the belief is false. In addition to my university research, I have done mathematical work for the U. S. Intelligence Community, the U.S. Army, private defense contractors, and a number of for-profit companies. In not one of those projects was I paid to find “the right answer.” No one thought for one moment that there could be such a thing.

So what is the origin of those false beliefs? It’s hardly a mystery. People form that misconception because of their experience at school. In school mathematics, students are only exposed to problems that (a) are well defined, (b) have a unique correct answer, and (c) whose answer can be obtained with a few lines of calculation.

Interestingly, people who rely on mental computation every day demonstrate the sort of adroitness that doesn’t fit into our models of math competence. In a New York Times article titled “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” author Elizabeth Green (who defines the term “unschooled” as people who have little formal education) writes,

Observing workers at a Baltimore dairy factory in the ‘80s, the psychologist Sylvia Scribner noted that even basic tasks required an extensive amount of math. For instance, many of the workers charged with loading quarts and gallons of milk into crates had no more than a sixth-grade education. But they were able to do math, in order to assemble their loads efficiently, that was “equivalent to shifting between different base systems of numbers.” Throughout these mental calculations, errors were “virtually nonexistent.” And yet when these workers were out sick and the dairy’s better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.

And Keith Devlin explains in The Math Gene that we’re schooled to express math in formal terms, but that’s not necessary for most of us—no matter what careers we choose. People who rely on mental math in their everyday lives are shown to have an accuracy rate around 98 percent, yet when they’re challenged to do the same math symbolically their performance is closer to 37 percent.

We have the idea that memorizing, practicing, and testing is the only way to higher achievement. It’s hard to imagine why we still believe that when studies show that high test scores in school don’t correlate with adult accomplishments (but do line up with interpersonal immaturity).

There are all sorts of ways to advance mathematical understanding. That includes, but isn’t limited to, traditional curricula. It’s time to broaden our approach. Let’s offer the next generation a more intrinsically fascinating, more applied relationship to math. Let’s foster analytical and critical thinking skills across all fields. The future is waiting.

This article is one in a series of three on natural math. 

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Experiment. What happened when formal math instruction was eliminated? 

Natural Math: 100+ Activities and Resources. Finding and learning from math in daily life. 

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Example

Louis Benezet, natural math,

1930’s classroom (forestpark4.wikidot.com)

Children are intrinsically eager and able to learn. If we step back from our limiting preconceptions about education, we discover learning flourishes when we facilitate it rather than try to advance it through force, intimidation, and coercion.

Over 85 years ago a pioneering educator proved that delaying formal instruction, in this case of mathematics, benefits children in wonderfully unexpected ways. Louis P. Benezet, superintendent of the Manchester, New Hampshire schools, advocated the postponement of systematic instruction in math until after sixth grade. Benezet wrote,

I feel that it is all nonsense to take eight years to get children thru the ordinary arithmetic assignment of the elementary schools. What possible needs has a ten-year-old child for knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.

While developing this rationale, Benezet spoke with eighth-grade students. He noted they had difficulties putting their ideas into English and could not explain simple mathematical reasoning. This was not only in his district; he found the same results with fourteen-year-old students in Indiana and Wisconsin. Benezet didn’t blame the children or teachers, he blamed introducing formal equations too early.  So he began an experiment, abandoning traditional arithmetic instruction below the seventh grade.

In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite – my new Three R’s. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language.

To start, he picked out five classrooms, choosing those districts where most students were from immigrant homes and the parents spoke little English. Benezet knew that in other districts the parents with greater English skills and higher education would have vehemently objected, ending the experiment before it started.

In the experimental classrooms, children were exposed to what we’d call naturally occurring math. They learned how to tell time and keep track of the date on the calendar. The students played with toy money, took part in games using numbers, and when dimension terms such as “half” or “double” or “narrower” or “wider” came up incidentally, they were discussed. Instead of math, the emphasis was on language and composition. As Benezet describes these children,

They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division.

At the end of the first school year, Benezet reported that the contrast between the experimental and traditionally taught students was remarkable. When he visited classrooms to ask children about what they were reading, he described the traditionally taught students as “hesitant, embarrassed and diffident. In one fourth grade I could not find a single child who would admit that he had committed the sin of reading.” Students in the experimental classrooms were eager to talk about what they’d been reading. In those rooms, an hour’s discussion went by with still more children eager to talk.

Benezet hung a reproduction of a well-known painting in the classrooms and asked children to write down anything the art inspired. Another obvious contrast appeared. When he showed the ten best papers from each room to the city’s seventh-grade teachers, they noted that one set of papers showed much greater maturity and command of the language. They observed that the first set of papers had a total of 40 adjectives such as nice, pretty, blue, green, and cold. The second set of papers had 128 adjectives, including magnificent, awe-inspiring, unique, and majestic. When asked to guess which district the papers came from, each teacher assumed that the students who wrote the better papers were from schools where the parents spoke English in the home. In fact, it was the opposite. Those students who wrote the most masterfully were from his experimental classes.

Yet another difference was apparent. It was something that Benezet had anticipated. He explained, “For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning faculties.” At the end of that first year, he went from classroom to classroom and asked children the same mathematical story problem. The traditionally taught students grabbed at numbers but came up with few correct results, while the experimental students reasoned out correct answers eagerly, despite having minimal exposure to formal math.

Based on these successes, the experiment expanded. By 1932, half of the third- to fifth-grade classes in the city operated under the experimental program. Due to pressure from some school principals, children in the experimental classrooms were back to learning from a math book in the second half of sixth grade. All sixth-grade children were tested. By spring of that year all the classes tested equally. When the final tests were given at the end of the school year, one of the experimental groups led the city. In other words, those children exposed to traditional math curricula for only part of the sixth-grade year had mastered the same skills as those who had spent years on drills, times tables, and exams.

In 1936, the Journal of the National Education Association published the final article by Benezet. His results showed the clear benefits of replacing formal math instruction with naturally occurring math while putting a greater emphasis on reading, writing, and reasoning. The journal called on educators to consider similar changes.

As we know, schools went in the opposite direction.

Louis Paul Bénézet

Louis Paul Bénézet

This article is an excerpt from Free Range Learning. (Next post, the extraordinary benefits of emphasizing natural math over math instruction.)

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

A Slanty Line Approach To Learning

slanty line principle, Bernie DeKoven,

Image: feigenfrucht.deviantart.com)

 Playfulness guru Bernie DeKoven is an amazing guy. His new book A Playful Path brims with wisdom and an irrepressible spirit of delight. It’s so good I think everyone needs a copy as a reference book on How To Be Human. 

He cheerfully agreed to let me publish this guest post. Thanks Bernie! 

Bernie DeKoven wonders if you’re having fun (deepfun.com)

Bernie suggests having fun (deepfun.com)

There’s an elegant model, called the “Slanty Line” principle, developed by physical educator Muska Mosstonxiv that puts the concept of individually negotiable challenge very clearly into practice.

If you’re a Phys Ed teacher, one of the things you do with kids is help them develop their high-jumping skills. In “non-adaptive” Phys Ed, the way you did this was to hold jumping contests. You’d hang a high bar horizontal to a certain height and everybody would have to take a turn jumping over the high bar. If they succeeded, they’d get to the next round, and the high bar would be raised. The contest would continue until only one person was left. That person would be lavishly praised as the one who established the high jump record for the class.

The problem with this kind of competitive incentive structure is that the kids who need the most practice are the kids who get to jump the least often. The worse they are at jumping, the sooner they’re out of the game.

Try this. Make the high bar diagonal rather than parallel to the ground. This lets everybody jump over any part of the high bar and take as many turns as they want. And what do you get?

Instead of the teacher, each kid sets his/her own challenge. The jumpers who are not so good at jumping can still jump across the high bar as many times as anyone else, they just cross at a lower point. And, when they feel the need to increase the challenge they can just station themselves at a higher part of the high bar.

No one is eliminated. No one is given prizes. Everyone wins. Repeatedly.

Slant the high bar and the authority rolls right out of the hands of the teacher, out of, actually, any one body’s hands, into everybody’s. The challenge (jump as high as you can, and then jump higher) remains the same, but the challenger has changed. It’s not the Phys Ed instructor who increases the challenge, it’s the kids, themselves: the kids as a group, and the kids, individually.

A challenge that is determined by the individual player is more complex, because it requires “reflective action.” The player must evaluate not only his or her own success, but also the success of the challenge. And even though kids can get very competitive, the challenge is ultimately self-selected, ultimately guided by sheer fun.

Without an external evaluator, each kid can devise and revise the challenge. Of course, evaluation is going on, and whether the competition is inner-directed or outer-directed, the fact is that the teacher, your fellow jumpers (both higher and lower), your inner referee; somebody is evaluating your performance, challenging you to challenge your self.

Ideally, each kid should be seeking out his/her personal level of flow, driven by the natural desire for complexity into a deeper and healthier engagement with the relationships between the human body and gravity. But, in fact, there’s still something about the way the task is framed that draws the kids apart.

Even though nobody’s eliminated, even though everyone’s free to increase or decrease the challenge, even though you don’t even have to take turns, the fact is that the challenge is directed towards the individual. With the focus on individual performance, on how high who jumps; the relationship is fundamentally the same.

And what’s worse (or more complex), someone might be attaching meaning to your performance, as if how high you can jump says something about your character!

So, what if we completely redirected the challenge, away from the individual and towards the group? What if the entire class tried to jump holding hands? Or with their arms around each other’s shoulders? Or each other’s waist?

Shifting the focus of the game away from what they can do individually (ME), we focus, also, on what the kids can do together (WE) – on collective as well as individual performance.

To jump the Slanted Bar together, we need to make sure that each individual kid is going to make it. Even though the challenge is to the group, there are still plenty of challenges to the individual player. Each has to be stationed at the appropriate part of the high bar: too high and you might not get over, too low, you might make it harder for someone else. Each has to be able to ask for help, and provide help. Preparing for the big jump, synchronizing the preparatory, simultaneous squat, each individual is doubly challenged. And yet, not competing. Same slant, same task, but fundamentally shifted experience.

Raising the high bar, you intensify the competitive relationship between the diminishing few. The game, internally and externally, becomes one of increasingly isolated MEs (the “winners”) against an increasingly disempowered WE.

Slant the High Bar, and the relationship relaxes, becomes supportive, empowering, healthy, ME\WE.

self-regulating learning,

Image: excess1ve.deviantart.com

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

child

School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

build divergent thinking, creative children, more imagination, creativity builds leaders, nurture divergent thinking,

Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

exercise and learning, overtaxed impulse control, full body learning, sensory education,

Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

goldilocks effect, individualized education,

Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

 too much adult-run learning, stubborn kids, child-led learning, natural learning,

Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

free play benefits, play versus learning, chores, self-regulation,

Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

why homeschool, democratic schools, raise successful children,

I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.