Sunday, May 13, 2012

trusting children to learn...

Too often the point of instruction is to make certain that children learn what we want them to... we want them to learn the values and beliefs that perfectly mirror our own. Or at least that appears to be the case. The truth of the child is that each is capable of learning from his or her own senses and experiences, and yet the predominant educational inclination is to distort reality toward particular ends.

Pestalozzi had said, "There are two ways of instruction. Either we go from words to things, or from things to words. Mine is the second method." And in his second method is the assumption that children may be trusted in their own formulations, and to arrive at their own beliefs, based on their own experiences. The role of the teacher is thus to provide an example of inquiry, an expression of relationship that exudes trust.

Froebel had noted that parents with very small children hold them and toss them in ways that establish bonds of trust between them, and within those bonds lies the future of human culture, not within what we say to our children, as instruction about reality, but rather within the trust we express within our own culture of rigorous inquiry. Just as children are tossed up in the air and neatly captured safely on the way down, they reach a point at which all that is necessary is for them to be tossed, and trusted to land on their own feet. The teacher's job therefore is to toss the meaningful questions that incite the child's confidence in exploration of and experimentation within physical and cultural reality.

Finnish brain researcher, author and professor Matti Bergström described the child's efforts to ascertain reality in contrast to the adult effort to impose a perceptual framework as the "black-white game." He said that human culture must arise new within each subsequent generation, and so the question becomes "will we trust our children's inherent capacity to observe, explore, experiment and learn and thus allow for human culture to do so?" The current standard of American education says no.

Pestalozzi used two particular German terms that are difficult to translate, as they meant more to him than falls into ease of translation. The first was Anschauung, which for some has been understood as the application of undifferentiated consciousness. The second term was fertigkeit which meant roughly, to do something with skill. By exploring these two concepts, Pestalozzi's method has the potential of becoming clear. Ask a child to explore and then test what he or she has discovered by skilled doing.

Fertigkeit is related to what John Ruskin had said a number of years later...
"Every youth should learn to do something thoroughly with his hands in order to know what touch means".
By failing to engage our children in growth of skill, and by failing to trust their powers of direct learning we leave them out of touch. One of the most direct consequences of our current method of education is that students too often pay too little attention to what they have done, and see too little need for their attention in what they do. They may seem quite willing to go through the motions, but when you assemble a box out of square with too little attention paid to the fit of the joints, for example, after the glue has set you may not need the teacher to point things out for you.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Anonymous10:50 AM

    Well said. And it explains to some degree why my sons turned out the way they did. All we do with out kids is to launch them, not to direct where they go after that.


  2. Anonymous10:25 PM

    I'm often skeptical of educational theory, but as a professional educator and now a parent, I do think that children have an innate desire to learn--a natural curiosity about their surroundings. Much of the teacher's job is, as you say, to point that curiosity in healthy directions. In young children, it means helping them memorize and recite things worth remembering, for example. In older children, it's giving them worthwhile books to read and meaningful work to do.

    The irony is that most American teachers and school administrators would insist that they agree with you--that schools should foster creativity and expand students' horizons and provide them with a mental toolkit for life ... and a lot of other vague metaphors. Yet our schools do no such thing.

    At higher levels, I've been amazed at what intelligent students will accomplish when I turn them loose on a challenging project. The finished result isn't always fully pleasing to me, but they learn more in the process than I could have ever taught them directly.