by Aaron Browder, Open School staff
February 19, 2018
Education is a long game. We primary and secondary school educators get kids for roughly 13 years. Why do we get them for that long? Because human childhood is just that long. Nobody decided it should be that long. There’s no scientifically backed pedagogy or standardized education policy calling the shots here. The question we have to answer is, since we’ve got them for 13 years, what the heck do we do with them?
Human childhood is significantly protracted relative to other mammals. Our nearest relatives, chimpanzees, need only 11 to 13 years to grow up, compared with the 18 needed by humans. Scientists haven’t reached a consensus on why we need so much time, though a popular theory explains that humans depend on knowledge-intensive tasks, including gathering plants and tracking animals, and that a long period of childhood is necessary to acquire all the relevant knowledge.
This theory is disputed by Dr. Douglas Bird and Dr. Rebecca Bliege Bird, anthropologists at the University of Maine in Orono, who studied a foraging people on the isle of Mer. They found that the most skilled fishermen on the island were scarcely better than the small children:
“Spearfishing and hand-line casting … are high-skill enterprises, which require detailed knowledge of the nature and behavior of each type of prey … The best and most admired spearfisher on the island, the Meriam concur, is a 48-year-old man named Walter Cowley … [Yet] the proudest spearmen on the island are just barely better than the children. In a detailed analysis of the productivity and fishing success rates of the people of Mer, the anthropologists were startled to find that children of crayon age were already dazzling with their spears and lines, and fully cognizant of the nuances of their marine ecosystem.”
The anthropologists have found evidence elsewhere that children are able to learn complex skills very rapidly:
“More recently, the researchers have studied the Mardu people of the Western Desert of Australia, and again found that children were adept hunters by the age of 5 or 6, and thereafter success was measured not by age, but by size.”
These findings shed some doubt on whether our extended childhoods are there for learning. Some scientists think that our long childhoods are simply the result of our long lifespans. But there is agreement that the brain is capable of learning very rapidly when it needs to:
“Dr. Bock proposes something of a middle ground between the two theoretical camps. As he sees it, learning is an important aspect of childhood, but it occurs in punctuated bursts rather than slowly and cumulatively, the timing driven, perhaps, by the dynamic architecture of the developing nervous system.”
“Slowly and cumulatively” is exactly the way traditional Western schools are designed to teach children. How can we reconcile this model of schooling with what scientists have found about human learning? Is it possible that, by educating in small, daily steps, schools are undermining children’s natural ways of learning?
Traditional schools view education as a long game. It’s long not because human childhood is long, but because we live in a complex industrialized society and there are an awful lot of things to learn. Traditional schools operate on the premise that we must use every day of our long childhoods wisely, and they ensure that every day is used wisely by making frequent measurements in the form of grades and tests. This way, if students get off track, they can be corrected as quickly as possible.
This model of schooling tends to become focused on things that can be learned quickly and can be measured according to small, daily milestones. Unsurprisingly, this results in shallow learning.
I like to think of learning like building a computer. Imagine an electronics school in which a student is building a computer. You are an inspector tasked with evaluating the student’s progress in building this computer. All the while the student is fiddling with the motherboard and graphics card and wiring things up, and you, knowing nothing about electronics, can only stare at the screen. Hour after hour, the screen looks the same — blank. As far as you can tell, the student is making no progress at all. You are just about ready to give the student a big red zero, when, suddenly, the student plugs in the power adapter and the lights come on, and everything is running perfectly.
Imagine if this electronics school really gave students failing grades if their computer showed no signs of life after a few hours of work. Students would learn to build only simplistic computers, like small circuit boards with flashing lights that don’t do much. Teachers, who are also evaluated based on these small milestones, would learn to drive students toward building simplistic computers. No one would ever learn to build anything complex; no one would ever learn to build anything useful.
This is the danger of evaluating students on a daily basis in any school. Shallow learning is rewarded, and deep learning, which can take days, months, or even years to manifest, is considered a waste of time.
The children on the island of Mer are able to learn to fish rapidly because they are allowed to learn in their own time. Learning occurs in “punctuated bursts” — for years they can’t be bothered to fish at all, and then one day they are ready to try it, and within a very short time they are masters. If the adults on the island tried to coerce those children to practice fishing every day, before the children were ready, they would only be distracting the children and delaying their eventual mastery.
Often, certain conditions must be met before a child is ready to learn. In the book The Lives of Children, George Dennison describes a school he taught at which served as sort of a last resort for children who had failed out of or been expelled from public schools. Dennison found that those children — scared, angry, and educationally traumatized — were unable to learn anything at all until he had spent several months simply playing with them, getting to know them, and being their friends. Gradually, as they came to trust their teacher and each other, they became interested in learning to read and acquiring other skills. By the end of the year, most of them were reading and doing math at or above their grade level.
It’s not just traumatized kids who need relationships with their teachers. All kids need to trust the people around them and develop a sense of security before they can be ready to learn. However, in the traditional model of schooling, there is no time to build trust. Schools, teachers, and students are pressured to produce proof of learning within the first few days of the start of school. Relationships are foregone entirely. The unsurprising result is shallow learning, or even illusory learning.
When I first started working at The Open School, I was excited to share my love of baking with the students. They, too, were excited to bake with me. The sight of raw ingredients turning into real food, the sensation of dough smooshing in their hands, and, of course, the delicious process of eating the finished product, were all great temptations for the kids.
I created a Cooking Corporation, complete with rules for using kitchen equipment and procedures for obtaining ingredients from the school supplies, so that when the students became skilled enough they could do the whole thing without my help.
They were never able to do it without my help. Mostly, they wanted to help with one part of the baking process, like mixing the dough, and then leave and go do something else. I found myself spending a lot of time persuading them to do more work.
9-year-old Amanda wanted to measure out the flour; she wanted me to tell her how many scoops of the measuring cup to use. She would always ask, “Is this right?” after guessing randomly. She could never be bothered to let me teach her how to measure. Often some kids would ask to bake a cake with me, and then leave me to do most of the work. I always had to cajole them into cleaning up, and they never did it satisfactorily. My goal had always been to make them independent. It couldn’t be done.
Finally, I told them I was too busy to help them bake and that they would have to do it themselves. That was the end of baking at The Open School.Independence and responsibility are forged in the fires of time, and time is something that traditional schools simply don't have. Click To Tweet
Several months later, 9-year-old Robert came up to me cold and asked me to help him bake some bread. My Cooking Corporation having long since fallen into ruin, I decided to just print him a recipe, give him the required ingredients, and collect a fee from him based on the cost of the ingredients.
A couple of times while making the dough, Robert came to me and asked for my help. I said I was busy, but that I could help him later. There was no need. When I went into the kitchen an hour later I found two somewhat awkwardly-shaped balls of dough on a lined baking sheet, ready to go into the oven. He had already cleaned up the kitchen. I put the baking sheet in the oven and took it out 30 minutes later, and, somewhat to my surprise, it was just about the best bread I’ve tasted.
How did he do it? I don’t know. I can only guess that he spent some good time puzzling over the instructions, and that eventually he figured out what he needed to do.
I’ve learned that it’s not possible to make kids independent. They will become independent when they’re ready. Sometimes a kid wants to bake with me because she wants to feel the flour sifting through her fingers and that’s all. Sometimes she just wants to spend some time with me. As a staff, I have the choice to bake when baking sounds fun, or to not bake when something else calls to me. I have no illusions that I can bestow skills upon a child through my efforts.
Many teachers want to harness the power of self-motivation in education. They understand that students who are self-motivated can move mountains, while unmotivated students are like mountains, unmovable. But teachers can’t harness this power unless they are truly prepared to live with students doing nothing. A teacher has to be able to say, “Oh, you don’t want to do anything today? That’s fine,” and then let the student do nothing, every day, even for a whole year. At some point the student is going to realize, “My teacher is really not going to do this for me; I guess I have to do it myself.”
But it will never get to that, because no teacher in almost any school can afford to wait even a few days without making the kids accomplish something. The teacher is responsible for outcomes and the students know it, and so the students will never take responsibility. Independence and responsibility are forged in the fires of time, and time is something that traditional schools simply don’t have.
So deep learning requires patience, but is there really time for deep learning? Is there time for building relationships? Is there time to acquire independence and responsibility? There are so many things to learn in the short 13 years we’ve been given!
Traditional schools make sure that students “stay on track” using frequent measurements in the form of grades and tests. If students don’t “stay on track” they might “fall behind.” This is because traditional education is a race. It’s not really about learning a lot, but getting higher scores than the kid next to you. As long as you are ahead, you are “winning,” and you will get into the best colleges and, ultimately, the highest-paying jobs.
In this model, education is not really about learning at all! It’s no surprise, then, that only things that can be measured are rewarded. The more accolades you get, the better your grades, the higher your test scores, the more prestige you win from the school race. That prestige can be turned in later in life for access to the high ranks of society.
In this model, there really is no time for deep learning. There is no time for relationships. There is no time for daydreaming, no time to be creative or find yourself, no time to build a complex, useful computer. All those things live outside the race, and the race is everything.
The good news is that you can opt out of the race. An increasing number of colleges and employers are recognizing that academic credentials aren’t the best predictors of career success, including prominent companies like Google. And many schools, like ours, are providing an environment that’s designed to let students flourish in their own ways and in their own time. Graduates from these schools, alongside “unschoolers” who have opted out of any kind of school, are finding remarkable success in college and career.
I want to wrap this up by returning to my original question. What the heck do we do with these kids for 13 years? 13 years is a long, long time. For that reason, we don’t need to panic over one wasted day. Or even a wasted year. Of course, there really is no such thing as wasted time. There is only time spent doing things that can’t be measured: thinking, listening, daydreaming, trying out different ideas.
Our students are building awesome, sophisticated computers. The lights may not be on yet, but when they do come on, you’ll see that it was all time well spent.