How Do We Learn?
It’s a common joke in self-directed circles that if someday schools mandated a curriculum to teach walking and talking to babies, within a generation or two we’d forget there was ever a time those were skills the majority of babies learned without formal instruction. On the one hand, it’s absurd to think we could ever design such a program. On the other, there would definitely be interest if we could. It would be advertised as the responsible thing for parents to do, to “give their kids a head start” or “help close the achievement gap.” And history suggests it wouldn’t take long for families to be convinced that children need such instruction and that they, as non-certified non-experts, aren’t qualified to provide the necessary instruction. How many topics and skills have many of us already been convinced that we and our kids can’t be trusted with?
In practice, we learn like our lives depend on it, as often they do. We learn independently and collectively, from when we’re very young to when we’re very old. There’s plenty written elsewhere about working memory, recall, forgetting, and all the fascinating wrinkles of learning science psychology and neurology have on offer for those of us who like thinking about thinking. Including the reminder from Grasp that I have bookmarked: “The two words [memory and learning] are not synonymous. Memory entails the mere storage of information, while learning involves abstracting meaningful rules and patterns from that information and putting them to work.” Some of this writing is as useful as it is interesting; since learning that we have a bias to remember an experience based on the peaks and end of it, I notice that awareness shaping how I plan school year event flows and multi-day field trips. Every time. Mostly, though, the learning questions folks have about self-directed learning centers are much more basic: How do they learn if you don’t make them? If I’m not teaching, designing lessons, and managing their days, what is my role in supporting young people’s learning? What about math? And, what about screens? So those are the questions we’ll answer here.
How do they learn if you don’t make them?
Assumptions about it being even possible to force someone to learn or control what they learn from an engagement with us aside, this question, taken at face-value, is simple enough to answer. We’re learning animals. There are variations and disabilities that can impact when, how, or if we develop in specific ways, but generally babies start recognizably learning shortly after they arrive. They observe, they mimic, they experiment. Their attention gets readily captured by new elements in their environment, and they seek social contact, whether they’re a baby who likes attention from many people or just from a few that are familiar. Alison Gopnik and Laura Schulz have written about experiments in which babies are shown to be developing theories about how things work that are based on statistical reasoning. The abilities to ask questions of others, manage our focus, review drafts, find a teacher when that’s what we want, and take notes in a way our future selves will understand are all skills that develop later as we refine our learning abilities, but kids definitely can learn without us imposing our desire to teach them. They can, they want to, and they already are! The real challenge would be to try to stop them…
Some of the educative drives that support young humans learning — and there are different versions of this list, but these are some of the most common drives named — include curiosity, sociability, and playfulness. These drives motivate them to keep experimenting, practicing, and exploring. They’re also all disruptive in an environment focused on standardization and control, like a conventional classroom, so they’re usually punished rather than nurtured. Schooled adults will often follow this “but how do they learn?!” question with a fear-filled “won’t they just play all day if you don’t stop them?” In a self-directed space, the answer is that sometimes they’ll play all day and that’s great! That’s valuable, and we trust them to be figuring out how much play feels good like we trust them to be figuring out how much lunch or how many warm layers would feel good for them day-by-day, so we offer support when needed but strive to minimize interference. Part of the answer, too, is that their desire to be part of a social group means they’ll sometimes want to play at grown-up tasks, with what researchers call “the tools of the culture” that they see bigger folks using, or earnestly try to help with adult work. Some adults get worried when kids want to play with hammers or frustrated by their inefficient early attempts at sweeping or even cooking, but if we give them ample time and space and support, this is how they learn to become community members who can use tools masterfully and do tasks helpfully as time goes on.
If I’m not teaching, designing lessons, and managing their days, what is my role in supporting young people’s learning?
In designing learning-focused spaces for self-directed education, or thinking about what to prioritize in relationship with young learners based this philosophy, where should adults start if not with curriculum and classroom management? At facilitator trainings, we remind people to start with who we are and where we are, and that that’s always a place to return to when you aren’t sure where to focus next. Whether formally schooled or indirectly influenced by a schoolish culture, we have continuous learning and unlearning to do so we can show up for young people without making our anxieties, judgements, old hurts, sense of self, conflict patterns, or emotional reactivity their problem. We have to tend to ourselves and each other so we can show up for them in a way that lets them feel safe, seen, respected in their agency, and cared about even as they make mistakes or upset us.
More broadly, though, writing on the conditions that best support self-directed learners, which it’s the role of the adults to do our best to provide, focus on play, tools, and the social environment.
Risky play, solitary play, play with rules, play that makes a mess, cooperative play, creative play…kids need lots of space and time for all kinds of play. For the adults, this is less about them needing us to provide all the most current board games and always be available as a playmate than it is about them needing us to be patient with or even appreciative of some noise, mess, creative use of materials, practice working through conflicts, and time spent on endeavors that a schoolish perspective would judge a waste of time, unproductive, or “too babyish.”
The tools, “tools of the culture,” that are important to provide access to will be different depending on your setting. Pencils and scissors, measuring tapes and wrenches, whisks, knives, drums, and iPads. Cars or public bus maps? Saddles or bicycles? Machetes, gardening spades, first aid kits…Whatever people where you are need to know how to use to navigate the world, kids will be curious about and want to get competent with. We need to model, be responsive to their curiosity, and support them in wanting to practice.
Finally, the social environment is, ideally, one where there are people of a variety of ages, interests, abilities, and backgrounds freely mixing. In places where it’s become normalized to segregate the very young and the very old, creating an age-mixed community is more difficult than in places where babies and elders are already normal parts of a young person’s daily life. The social environment would ideally feel stable, supportive, and respectful, a place where young people can bring their full selves and be embraced for who they are. They benefit from a culture that values their agency and trusts they’re capable of learning and of taking increasing responsibility for choices about their lives. Finally, they benefit from having a diverse network of adults who know and care about them, who are available for questions, accompaniment, modeling, or just reassuring the young person that they matter and are not alone. Social support, for kids and adults, is a key contributing factor to life satisfaction and a protective factor through times of crisis. Offering access to such relationships by building an age-inclusive community, formal or informal, is both ongoing work and some of the most high impact work to be engaged in.
What about math?
Math! It’s fascinating and satisfying and everywhere. And we do a terrible disservice to kids and society at large by schooling folks into the idea that math is just memorization competitions to beat others at or drills and worksheets to anxiously dread then suffer through. For adults worried about how their kid will learn the specific math they need for a specific test they will maybe need to take sometime in the future, there are plenty of resources they can use to learn what they need once they’ve determined they need it and are preparing. It’s not like kids enrolled in conventional schools don’t prepare test-specific content in the months before an exam; they take the classes and still spend time on extra classes and workbooks separately to make sure they can do what they’ll be tested on. A self-directed kid may or may not have more skill-building to do than a conventionally schooled kid during this prep time, but they also are less likely to be distracted by a story that they’re “bad at math” or should be stressed about math that’s been built up by years of having their quiz grades judged by peers and adults.
Among the many texts and videos for teaching adults that math is actually much more (and more interesting than!) than what schools teach it as, some favorites are Lockhart’s Lament and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s The Disordered Cosmos (which is physics and history as much as it’s math…but…interdisciplinarity is part of the point!)
I also keep copies of Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby and Peter Gray’s How Children Acquire “Academic” Skills Without Formal Instruction at our learning center for folks who want to read about studies demonstrating babies’ pattern recognition and grasp of probability, as well as some about how direct instruction in mathematics as done in many contemporary schools can interfere with the development of problem-solving skills and curiosity about how or why various formulas work.
And, what about screens?
Screens — phones, computers, tablets, etc. — are, for most of us, very clearly “tools of the culture.” We cannot model sitting with a laptop and smartphone for much of the day, accept developments to normalize such a life even more in the future, and then get frustrated with children being drawn to mimic us and practice with these tools. This is especially the case when the screen is a portal through which they have access to more space and building materials than their grown-ups could buy them, more play dates than they could coordinate everyone’s adults being willing to host and transport them for, and more answers to their questions than their grown-ups would likely have knowledge or patience for. Often adults’ discomfort with kids’ screen use is discomfort about the mirror it confronts them with or the reminder it is that they don’t understand enough about the tech ecosystem we’re all immersed in the rapid development of to feel confident helping their young person learn to navigate it safely and powerfully. Fortunately, under each of those fears are desires — to model more mindfully or to learn enough to really discuss with young people how to guard our agency and privacy online — and desires we can actively turn into goals and succeed at. No screen time restrictions or search filters will keep our kids from a world where the whole internet is available to them and many of its major players are actively looking to exploit them. Further, by keeping them ignorant and dependent on externally imposed limits, we miss an opportunity to support them developing awareness and skills they’ll need for that future day when we’re not around to put a lock and timer on their iPad. Instead, we can put a safe search filter on and talk about what to do in the cases where distressing content gets through anyway. We can practice assessing what information is trustworthy or not, which sites are trustworthy or not. We can — and need to — be discussing bias in search engines, the data mining and manipulation efforts of popular social media sites, what to do when there’s a racist in the videogame chat, and if and how to engage with game apps designed to hook and trick us using the same tricks casinos use. We can be reflecting on how it feels when we can easily keep up with a friend in a different time zone because we can game together late at night, how interesting a video or music production program’s functions are, how cool it is that our younger friend learned to spell all their colors so they can plan a video game with us where she needed to type the colors to us in the chat. We can discuss how it feels in our bodies and minds when we spend 3 or 7 or 12 hours at our screens, whether for work or play. We can experiment with changes. We can check-in on whether our online time is us turning towards something or away from something. And we can talk about how sometimes that turning away can be restful or soothing, but sometimes it can be numbing or hiding in a way that’s a sign we need to make a life change or ask for help. Turning hazards into risks, the unknown dangers into known and manageable ones, takes more effort and time than unplugging the internet or trying to ban games, but it’s important. It’s like how we learn the local poisonous plants and venomous animals and practice recognizing them before heading off on a hike. We have a responsibility to keep trying to make all the tech in our ecosystems less toxic and predatory, but in the meantime we also have a responsibility to help young people get the information they need — even when some of these site and game designers would like that information to stay hidden — so they can enjoy and explore as safely as possible.