Learning. It’s Complicated.

I read and follow many educational writers, bloggers and theorists in an attempt to understand how learning works, and, by implication or association, what makes for good teaching and an effective education system. However, not everything about education is to be learned in educational texts. A good example of this is to be found in reading ‘River of Consciousness‘, a collection of essays and the last publication of the English-born neurologist and polymath Oliver Sacks. Here, in the course of a few relatively short pieces, the author of such works as ‘Awakenings‘ and ‘The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat‘ takes on evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience and the arts, as he searches for an understanding of the conscious mind and what it is that makes us human. In doing so, he touches on subjects which I see ‘debated’ on eduTwitter on a daily basis. On the importance of Play, for example, especially in young children, he has this to say:

‘All children indulge in play, at once repetitive and imitative and, equally, exploratory and innovative.They are drawn both to the familiar and the unusual – grounding and anchoring themselves in what is known and secure, and exploring what is new and has never been experienced. Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or “motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.’

Which begs the question, if children have an ‘elemental hunger for knowledge’, why do so many children stop engaging with school? I suspect the answer may have something to do with who determines the knowledge which is on the menu, and the extent to which the consumers have a choice. A very important element of play of course is the storytelling element, and Sacks has an observation on that which touches on one of our favourite themes here at The Literacy Adviser:

‘Both the innovative and the imitative impulses come together in pretend play, often using toys or dolls or miniature replicas of real-world objects to act out new scenarios or rehearse and replay old ones. Children are drawn to narrative, not only soliciting and enjoying stories from others, but creating them themselves. Storytelling and mythmaking are primary human activities, a fundamental way of making sense of our world.’

Put very simply, storytelling should be at the heart of any education programme, at all ages and in all subject or topic contexts. And speaking of educational contexts, here is what Sacks has to contribute on the nature of schooling, and the perennial debates about ‘skills v knowledge’ or ‘progression v tradition’ or ‘freedom v structure’:

‘Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills, and for this education must be sufficiently structured and focused. But an education too rigid, too formulaic, too lacking in narrative, may kill the once-active, inquisitive mind of a child. Education has to achieve a balance between structure and freedom, and each child’s needs may be extremely variable. Some young minds expand and blossom with good teaching. Other children (including some of the most creative) may be resistant to formal teaching ; they are essentially autodidacts, voracious to learn and explore on their own. Most children will go through many stages in this process, needing more or less structure, more or less freedom at different periods.’

So there you have it. It’s complicated! Schools and education systems have to be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of all learners, which incidentally are not fixed, even within an individual. You begin to see why there is no such thing as a perfect system or a perfect school, and why as long as we have formal schooling, everything within it is a compromise of ideas and ideals.

Next time I will be sharing what Sacks has to say about the nature of memory and conscious thought.



7 thoughts on “Learning. It’s Complicated.

  1. I am learning about adolescents and ways to incorporate reading in their lives. When I first looked at the blog post, I saw young children and thought, “this is not a post that will relate”, and however after re reading and deeper thinking I realize this post directly correlates with adolescent reading. Children are born with the desire to learn and grow; they enjoy questioning things and investigating ideas. Why as teenagers must this stop? Are teens too cool to question, want to learn, or is it that we as teachers are not giving them the right ways to do this. Story telling is fun, it always has been, and being able to use imagination or re tell exciting things that are happening in life. Listening to people tell stories can be fun and knowledgeable. I can tell you however with one hundred percent certainty when I was in high school this would not sound fun at all. Why? Because if I heard about story telling in one of my classes I would assume it would come with a syllabus and direct instructions on exactly how to tell the story. You state, “an education too rigid, too formulaic, too lacking in narrative, may kill the once-active, inquisitive mind of a child”. This is what is happening to our adolescent readers, learners and storytellers. They are losing their sense of themselves and forming to a syllabus. It is extremely difficult to balance education and teach students what they need to know and want to know. As teachers it is our jobs to find, that balance and produce students with imaginations and students who not only want to read and write but also tell.

    • Hi Susan, Thanks for the comments, most of which I agree with wholeheartedly. You hit on a very important question for schools when you talk about the balance between what students ‘need to know and want to know’. From my experience, most curricula lean very much towards what somebody has decided students ‘need to know’, some of which, I am sure they all DO need to know, but much of which they don’t. In any case, as adults, when we need to know something, that’s when we learn it.

  2. Teaching high school students can be challenging because of all the outside factors involved in their lives. Many students have to deal with more than we deal with on a daily basis so when it comes down to reading Withering Heights, for example, they are not interested. It is very difficult to get students interested in reading various types of books. I remember being in high school and being assigned books to read and I hated it. When I actually would read the books, I enjoyed them but being assigned readings always takes the pleasure out of it. For instance, I am in graduate school and we were assigned a book to read and I was dreading it until I began reading and I ended up really liking the book. I think if teachers try to pre-teach the book or show how it will relate to modern times, it may get students interested more. I liked how you said everyone loves story telling and often this love of story telling is ruined by rigid coursework. I think a good way to incorporate story telling easily is journals. Students can have a few minutes before class to write in their journals. They can write about anything without fear of judgement and this is a way for teachers to learn about students. I did a practicum semester in high school study skills class and I remember it being very difficult to get them motivated about any lessons. I think that is they key for high school teachers is to try and find a hook that will get them interested in different types of books.

    • Hi Anna. Thank you for your comments. I like the idea of student journals; it’s important to give students their own time and space to record their thoughts. As far as reading is concerned, the problem is that we often expect students to all be interested in the same book at the same time. This is a difficult thing to achieve. A good teacher will always be bringing the right book to the child at just the right time. One thing we will have to disagree on though; I don’t accept that ‘dealing with things’ in your own life necessarily affects whether and what you want to read. We all have real life to deal with, and reading can either help us with that or help us escape from that. It’s a choice everyone has, regardless of who they are.

  3. I agree with the statements whole heartedly. As a teacher, it is very difficult to make school all things to students. To have innovation, imagination, creativity, the regimented skill drilling that is expected of the state standards and keep up with discipline and whatever else may come at you during the day is rough. It is also hard when you have children in your class that have the spark coupled with the kids that complain and groan over every task asked of them. I think that not only is it the job of the teacher to provide as many opportunities for creative thought, but also the parents’. Creativity and extended thought doesn’t seem “hard” and “difficult” if it’s something that is just done all the time. Children should be asked more questions instead of being brushed off. There needs to be opportunities for thought in multiple aspects. When children see how rewarding that is, they are more likely to want to on their own and across subjects. There are also times that children just aren’t going to be as interested in a specific topic. That’s okay too. Not every topic is going to be thrilling for every student. I think it’s the jobs of the adults in the students’ lives to take advantage of the opportunities where the student is interested to stretch thinking that extra step as well as to model it themselves.

    • Thank you for the comments Sarah. Difficult to disagree with anything you have said here. I would also add that, as well as asking children more questions, we should spend much more time encouraging them to ASK their own questions, and helping them to make the questions better.

  4. I agree that storytelling is an important component to playing for students. As a kindergarten teacher, I am always reading stories to the students and using storytelling as a useful component to teach into reading. We teach the students about storytelling and how to retell a story in their own words. I help the students learn this concept by using read alouds that the students can learn and memorize. Stories such as the Three Little Pigs are good for students to “act out” the events in the story. This leads into students being creative and using the play component in literacy instruction. My students are always eager to act out stories with their classmates. I also feel that is engaging for the students and gets them excited about reading.
    It can be difficult to get students interested in learning if they do not feel motivated to do so. By incorporating elements of play in any instruction or lesson, I feel that it causes students to be more interested in what they are learning. Children can learn from a variety of learning styles and methods. If we taught from one mind set we won’t be able to teach to all of our students.

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