Sunday, 27 June 2010

How Children Learn

Amidst my turmoil about workbooks and curriculum, about what my children know compared with other children, there are times when I have to just stop and see what is in front of me. Oh yes, it's LEARNING! And this learning is happening now: like a secret underground volcano, all this stuff all bubbles to the surface. And I'm gobsmacked. How did the child know that? Where did that come from?

Of course we never get to see much of the learning that happens: a child can go from apparently knowing nothing, to knowing lots; from not understanding, to full comprehension.

Perhaps in a school environment, under a routine of externally-imposed one-size-fits-all learning, many of these moments get lost, drowned, smothered or distracted. Perhaps they happen and nobody but the child is there to notice. But in home education, especially when children are left to learn without interference or well-intentioned teaching, these teeny bits of magic are revealed. And if you're still enough and resist interfering, you can tiptoe up and witness wonderful things happening.

The biologist in me would say it's those neurons firing off, making connections, links, mapping the world of information and making sense of it when nothing much appears to be happening on the surface.

When learning happens and I can't see where it has come from I realise what John Holt was saying about autonomous learning. I see how learning is not a direct route from a to z, or a series of routes a to b, b to c, and so on. Often it is a random, higgledy-piggledy, unplanned journey. It is like one huge 3-dimensional jigsaw that doesn't always need all the pieces to make sense, and you don't have to start at the corners or the sides to make out the picture. And, besides, your picture will be different to everyone elses.

Today, I've been watching my 6 year old make sense of maths. I've never taught her maths. She has doodled her way through a few sticker maths books because she begged to, but I do no formal, schooly learning with her. I don't sit and count with her. I don't read counting books to her. We don't have posters of numbers on the walls. We've never practised adding up. I have no idea where her mathematical knowledge comes from, except that it has somehow evolved from her personal experience of the world and the problems she needs to solve. I find it difficult to step back. Maths makes me anxious. I hate people saying 'but maths will come naturally, in day-to-day activities'. I think ' Yes, but I dont' care what you say about your children, I need to see it happening, in MY children.' And it does happen. If I stop worrying and just be still for a moment.

Today dd wanted to find out how much money was in her money box. She emptied the piggy on the floor and spent an hour of counting out piles of tens and piles of pounds, coming to me with occasional questions:
'What comes after twenty?'
'How can I add these ones to these twos?'
'Do these make ten?'

She made a dog design on the floor with the piles of tens and pounds and, satisfied with her work, left them there for us all to trip over.

She never did find out how much was in her money box. By the time she'd got to that part, she'd built on whatever knowledge and experience she already had: her curiosity was satiated. The journey had been far more important than the end result.

Therein lies a lesson for all of us.


Sam said...

Great post! The journey is more important - we know it, but we don't believe it ;-) Or we do, and don't, at the same time...or something.

I need to stick that up as a big reminder to myself.

Carol said...

When I look at it from a distance, it is obvious that this kind of learning experience is far superior to the very directed learning that takes place in the classroom. There's so much more going on - reasoning, assessing, finding ways to solve the problem..............skills that so many apparantly "successful" people (according to the traditional system) just do not have. I feel free to say that because I was one of them!

Fantastic stuff!

Big mamma frog said...

Yes, Carol, they're not skills that I have either. Though it's fair to say I'm exceedingly good at passing exams. If you could get a degree in passing exams then I would pass that degree with flying colours.

Funny how useless the 'passing exams' skill is in the workplace lol.

Carol said...

Yep - I can pass exams. Rubbish at thinking though!

Why then does society place so much emphasis on them?

Anonymous said...

You've made my day, reading this! I keep getting myself in a flap when dd compares herself to schooly friends, but then have to give myself a stern talking to! I want her to say to her 'school' friends - what use is that written sum of random numbers? I need to know how to share all the cherries equally between me, my sister and my brother etc. I think I need to track down a John Holt book!