“Man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly; fish swim; man thinks and learns.”
~ John Holt, from “How Children Learn”
Yes, I have been a teacher. Yes, I have been worried out of my wits about my students learning and then jumped for joy when I thought it had happened.
Yes, I have made elaborate lesson plans that had to be thrown out of the window; prepared objectives that never ended, or were just too hard to reach; thought of strategies that often helped me more than the kid; created teaching materials akin to works of art and evaluated others more than I did myself.
All along, I had this notion that children were incapable of “learning” on their own and that they needed to be “taught”.
Everything that I did as a teacher and parent, stemmed from that one notion or idea. While I thought I was being child-centric, I was actually being self-centered—the whole process and joy of learning started with me and rested on my ability to “teach” them skills that were necessary for life—but, whose life?
Did I really know each of my students so well that I could decide what they needed to learn and how?
Did I truly give them control over their environment and learning, or did I give them pseudo-control?
Did I have the time to sit with them and understand the core of their beings and what drove their spirit?
Did I care enough to just be with them and their feelings as they arose from their inner depths, without attributing any of those to “issues” or “behaviors” or “emotional problems” or even just “difficulties”?
Did I deeply know their strengths and their passions or did I gloss over them, to slot them (as “skills to be learned”) into convenient holes, in what I (someone who had no clue about them as people) called “the curriculum”?
Did I want to kindle their love and zest for life, or “help” them and frame them for life, so they could ride the waves to learn how to swim without knowing what it was to get wet and messy?
Sadly, even with the best of intentions, I perhaps didn’t do most of the above when I was a young teacher of kids with special needs, then as a parent who relied heavily on her teaching background to bring up her child.
Perhaps that’s how I began following my heart. Perhaps that’s how I came to tread this path of unschooling with my son, who is my inspiration for living and learning.
I have now begun to ponder on some questions that I never bothered to ask before—
why is there so much ado about learning?
Why do we want to simulate reality and prepare their lives, or prepare them for life, instead of waiting and watching the magic unfold?
Why have we forgotten how to be children, to stop and wonder about the little miracles that life uncovers for us every moment of every day?
Why do we want to “manufacture” and “produce” learning?
Why do we want to make learning a “package deal” instead of unwrapping the package, like a child opening a gift, with love, joy and sweet anticipation?
Why do we fret and fume over something that seems to happen naturally, just like “s**t happens”?
Yes, that is how I have come to understand learning—the learning that happens with my son and perhaps most kids in the world.
If only we gave them a free hand to choose what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn and for how long. Do we give children a choice in these matters?
Do we encourage them to follow the path they want to tread, even if it is not the one we, their parents, are walking on?
Do we trust implicitly in their ability to think and learn everything that they need and want to know? I wish we did. Then they would learn to fly just like the birds learn to fly and swim like the fish learn to swim—on their own and not because someone taught them.
Because learning just happens, like s**t happens. It happens when it has to and how it has to. It is not something that can be controlled and coerced to happen or taught from the outside. It is inherent; it is natural, because that is how it was meant to be—that is what I have come to believe.
One is not bound by time and space for learning to happen.
It happens in its own time, in its own space and at its own pace. It happens in the bathroom, on the road, while eating, or arguing, as one opens one’s eyes to see the day, or in the wispy dreams that one dreams at night.
It happens in the most unexpected places, jumping out to surprise you like a Jack-in-the-box. It happens quietly and surely, like the breath that flows in and out. It happens even when you don’t see it happen – in the silent spaces that flow between doing and not doing. It happens when one is “doing nothing”. It just happens, like life.
Learning happens as we live each day, unhurried and complete—when we are truly alive in the moment, just as we nourish our bodies and yet don’t wait endlessly for something (like s**t) to happen. It just happens.
So then, why do we feel this need to “teach” or “do” things with kids? Why a nerve-wrecking worry if children will learn and how they will learn?
I think it is because we have compartmentalized learning and packed it into neat, air-tight boxes, stacked in a particular order. We have as many theories and philosophies as there are people, one contradicting or critiquing the other—we have definitions and labels and norms and standards.
Learning has become too complicated. We have killed its inherent innocence and simplicity. We have caged the free bird it actually is, and then we sit and wonder about how it will ever fly. We have dammed learning and evacuated free will and thinking.
We have lost touch with ourselves and forgotten that it is in our very nature to think and learn.
We don’t need “teachers” today. We need more adults to become children, as “co-creators” and “co-learners”. We need to find the child within each of us who is still alive, calling out for attention from some forgotten corner.
We need to hold hands with our children and look into the gorgeous heavens with a fresh wonder and joy every single day, without that voice inside our head asking if it is a session on geography, or nature-study, or poetry.
We are human; we are alive on this planet to learn from and with each other, in every waking moment, what we need to and want to learn—not because we have to reach for a star, or be literate, or pay our bills, but because we are here to discover what drives our spirit and hearts, to open the doors to a world of infinite possibilities.
We need to wake up every day with love in our hearts and an unflinching trust in ourselves and our children.
“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”
~ John Holt
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Ed: Bronwyn Petry
photo credit: elephant archives