“The only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.”
~George Bernard Shaw
I am a product of the public school system in the United States. I attended public school from 1971 to 1983. (Yep, I’m that old.)
But with the many passed years and being a parent to a school age child myself has given me the opportunity to take a deeper look at my relationship to learning.
According to wikipedia, learning is defined as acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. But what I find discerning about this definition is that “engagement” has been removed from the learning equation. (Come to think of is, so has “interests” and “empowerment” which I’ve come to learn through the unschooling process is vital to learning.)
Acquiring knowledge seems to be the priority within the traditional school system. According to my memory, the content itself was the focus rather than the exchange of energy that is defined as engagement. The content was valued at all costs even if it turned off children from authentically being engaged with learning. Today I think it might even be worse with the current regulations on curriculum and the failing governmental program called No Child Left Behind. It seems now, many view the public schools as a form of prison.
Digging a deeper into my own past, I take a look at how “learning”and “content” were imposed on my life, masked as something called “education”.
I recall learning about the Constitution of the United States when I was Miro’s age. I even memorized the Preamble(much of which I can still site to this day). But it was a “forced learning” and in all honesty, I learned the lesson that learning was a chore and it impeded on my personal freedoms. (Ironic, huh?) Most of the information I learned in elementary school is long forgotten or at least locked away in a stored vault in dusty corner of my neural network.
I also remembered being in a science class as a young teen and being forced to dissect a frog’s tiny body. I identify more now with the cliché of that lesson but cannot recall a single thing I was supposed to have learned other than my utter dislike for being forced to do something that revolted me.
Elementary, junior high and high school were equally a bore to me. And once I figured out I had the gift of short term photographic memorization, I breezed through without much effort. I skipped many classes, zoned out, drew, read books (even smoked pot). But I performed well when I needed to, only required reading the material the night before the test to ace the questions with the correct answers. Then, magically the information faded to black, dissolving into tiny particles never to be though of again.
I realize now, the information that was being spoon fed to me as a child, forced into the spaces in my mind, preoccupying my consciousness was not my choice. Some of the information now I learn was simply false, in terms of history, science, etc, designed possibly to keep me complacent. That content was programmed for me, for a generation and in my best estimate, this practice is still in effect today through our mandated curriculum. I suppose whether that content was meaningful to shaping me into the person I became is unknown. But the dictating what topics were placed into my mind did prompt me into into a rebellious, non-conformist and open minded adult I find myself today.
And “conversation” and “engagement”?
In my public school experience more resembled rote learning versus critical thinking of any type. There were those who excelled in this system, even identified or loved the academic topics and performed well.
Performing well in school though is not really learning in my experience.
With my own son, we talk daily about intellectual topics that interest both us. For example, we have been exploring the history surrounding the plagues of the world. Our conversations last for hours and both of us end up learning more than we knew going into the conversation.
I am convinced that true engagement surrounding a topic is one of the most basic elements of learning.
In the case of history surrounding the plagues of the world, our conversation was spawned from a video on youtube Miro watched by Vsauce.
The video explored the role Cordyceps played in spreading many of the plagues,which flowed into a discussion about the Black Death (bubonic plague). Coincidently, I had just read an article that morning addressing the possibility that bacteria and microbes enter the earths’ atmosphere via meteorites including the possible birth of the Black Death. Two points of view on the same topic. The conversation was centered around our interests and through an truly engaged exchange, we both left the conversation with a deeper sense of learning.
Did either of us study the topic because it was forced through a lesson?
I truly think there are different styles of learning. I’ve never learned a thing by opening up a book to read chapters 6-8 . (However I aced the tests the next morning by doing just that.) For me, if I have no interest in the topic, I will not learn. I will not retain. I will not engage. Additionally, the “open the book” assignment offers a forced passive learning experience which taught me to resist that kind of learning. However when I opened a book because it was on something I was interested in, the learning flowed naturally and gracefully as I recall reading many books on the life and art of Joan Miro when I was a child.
But my son Miro is learning very differently and I recognize that. He doesn’t have that built up resistance to learning itself that I had for many of my childhood, teen and adult years. Miro’s relationship to learning is fluid and learning through inspiration sparked from experiences in the world is a unique gift.
Walking down this path with Miro has taught me too, to once again to engage and love the flow of learning.