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.



The Pursuit of Ignorance

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the relationship between knowledge and skills in education, talk which has often been polarised and portrayed as a straight fight between these two purposes or goals. They are, of course mutually dependent, but there is nothing those of us involved in the education business like better than a good argument, or a controversial statement. Which is how my attention came to be drawn to this TED talk by the American neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, in which he explores (and explodes) our common misconceptions about the study of science, and stresses the importance of developing students who are able to keep on asking the right questions, long after their ‘formal education’ has ended.

Unfortunately, according to Fierstein, our current education systems, with their heavy emphasis on standardised testing and memorisation, tend to have discouraged that very natural curiosity long before students have reached that point. Far from arguing that knowledge doesn’t matter, I think what he is suggesting is that knowledge is of no value unless it stimulates a further search for that which is unknown, so the message for schools, teachers and students would be to find the right balance between learning the facts and asking impossible questions. In other words, I guess if he was being strictly accurate, he might have called it ‘the pursuit of informed ignorance’! See what you think.

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