Thursday, July 24, 2008

Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids

A cool article from Psychology Today.

Part one is here: Children Educate Themselves I: Outline of Some of the Evidence.

This is not the whole article, I've only posted a little bit of each subject section -- to see the rest, follow the link at the bottom of this post.

Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids

Have you ever stopped to think about how much children learn in their first few years of life, before they start school, before anyone tries in any systematic way to teach them anything? Their learning comes naturally; it results from their instincts to play, explore, and observe others around them. But to say that it comes naturally is not to say that it comes effortlessly. Infants and young children put enormous energy into their learning. Their capacities for sustained attention, for physical and mental effort, and for overcoming frustrations and barriers are extraordinary. Next time you are in viewing range of a child under the age of about five years old, sit back and watch for awhile. Try to imagine what is going on in the child's mind each moment in his or her interactions with the world. If you allow yourself that luxury, you are in for a treat. The experience might lead you to think about education in a whole new light--a light that shines from within the child rather than on the child.

Here I will sketch out a tiny bit of what developmental psychologists have learned about young children's learning. To help relate this knowledge to thoughts about education, I'll organize the sketch into categories of physical, linguistic, scientific, and social-moral education.

Physical Education

Lets begin with learning to walk. Walking on two legs is a species-typical trait of human beings. In some sense we are born for it. But even so it doesn't come easily. Every human being who comes into the world puts enormous effort into learning to walk.


Language Education

If you have ever tried to learn a new language as an adult, you know how difficult it is. There are thousands of words to learn and countless grammatical rules. Yet children more or less master their native language by the age of four. By that age, in conversations, they exhibit a sophisticated knowledge of word meanings and grammatical rules. In fact, children growing up in bilingual homes acquire two languages by the age of four and somehow manage to keep them distinct.


Science Education

Young children are enormously curious about all aspects of the world around them. Even within their first few days of life, infants spend more time looking at new objects than at those they have seen before. By the age at which they have enough eye-hand coordination to reach out and manipulate objects, they do just that--constantly. Six-month-olds examine every new object they can reach, in ways that are well designed to learn about it's physical properties. They squeeze it, pass it from hand to hand, look at it from all sides, shake it, drop it, watch to see what happens; and whenever something interesting happens they try to repeat it, as if to prove that it wasn't a fluke. Watch a six-month-old in action and see a scientist.


Social and Moral Education

Even more fascinating to young children than the physical environment is the social environment. Children are naturally drawn to others, especially to those others who are a little older than themselves and a little more competent. They want to do what those others do. They also want to play with others. Social play is the primary natural means of every child's social and moral education.


What Happens to Motivation at Age Five or Six?

Once, when my son was about seven years old and in public school, I mentioned to his teacher that he seemed to have been far more interested in learning before he started school than he was now. Her response was something like this: "Well, I'm sure you know, as a psychologist, that this is a natural developmental change. Children by nature are spontaneous learners when they are little, but then they become more task oriented."

I can understand where she got that idea. I've seen developmental psychology textbooks that divide the units according to age and refer to the preschool years as "the play years." All the discussion of play occurs in those first chapters. It is as if play stops at age five or six. The remaining chapters largely have to do with studies of how children perform on tasks that adults give them to perform. I imagine that the teacher had read such a book when she was taking education courses. But such books present a distorted view of what is natural. In the next two installments I will present evidence that when young people beyond the age of five or six are permitted the freedom and opportunities to follow their own interests, their drives to play and explore continue to motivate them, as strongly as ever, toward ever more sophisticated forms of learning.

Go read the whole post at Gray's blog.

I agree totally with his premise. Much of my education has occurred outside of school, by me following my own curiosity about the world. But I am rather unique in how I managed to get through school -- most kids get beaten down by the system until they lose the natural curiosity and wonder that is an innate part of all people.

I look forward to what Gray has to say about this subject in future posts.

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