Children’s search for meaning starts young. Children who are already anxious to make sense of issues that matter to them in their own private lives, who come to formal schooling keen and enthusiastic to use whatever it can offer them to help meet their personal objectives. It is not the other way round. The greatest incentive to learn is intrinsic. That is why a caring, thoughtful, challenging, stimulating life – a life of manageable child-like proportions – in the greater community is so vitally important.1
It has been on the restless, creative energy of each new generation that society has been dependent for its progress, and for the solution to problems that earlier generations had thought intractable. Individuals have for generations been growing their intelligence by being able to see others acting in intelligent ways. Like tends to breed like. Until very recently, most people lived in environments in which ‘cause and effect’ were reasonably local and obvious; youngsters could see and understand what was happening to their more experienced, and presumably wiser, elders. More and more now, those local experiences are being lost in a sea of daily commutes to jobs and schools in neighbouring towns, villages, or counties2. Extended families are so often spread out across different countries, even continents that intergenerational learning is becoming ever less obvious and relatives are in positions far less conducive to modelling intelligent behaviours for their children3. It is impossible to bring up young people to be intelligent in a world that is just not intelligible to them.
Since the earliest times learning was best accomplished through apprenticeship, sometimes now called ‘discovery’ learning4. Parents and elders acted as role models for progressive problem solving. As craftsmen worked so they taught their apprentices to understand that part of the project that was within their capability. As the apprentice became more skilled so he took more control of his own further learning. They learnt as they worked, and the greater the overlap the better. Learning was practical, useful and relevant; if youngsters couldn’t plough properly then years later as a farmer they would starve.
Consider the importance to youngsters of a stern games coach, be it of football, cricket or lacrosse. Not only do such coaches describe the skills the youngsters need, but they actively get out on the field and demonstrate their own prowess. How many academic subject teachers are able to show how good they are at actual essay writing or solving mathematical problems for the first time in front of their students5? What a good teacher, or coach, does is to make their own thinking visible to the learner. It’s that process of thinking through an issue, and putting it to the test, that children need help in understanding.
Schools, however, need to take students beyond apprentice-like learning, to master skills which often seem intensely boring and of little interest in themselves. Such skills as mathematical formulae, foreign language grammar and the routine procedures of the sciences frequently leave students feeling that this is less about getting smarter, and more about getting ‘stupider’. Routine skills serve as a means to an end for, without these young children can’t move on to more complex work; it’s these skills that enable them to move up into a whole new world of meaning6. These days, discovery learning is not enough to secure a good job or a place at University. What children have to achieve is the right balance of discovery and routinised learning and that inevitably involves experience both inside and outside the classroom.
It has often been said that those individuals who thrive best in business and personal relationships are those who possess a great deal of self-confidence in themselves7. Work and play have personal value and are of personal relevance. Young children who feel valued and respected in their worlds in-school and out, are more likely to be the ones who see their learning at school as relevant to their own personal needs and build up the confidence to tackle whatever spins or turns they may encounter. That is why streets that are unsafe for children to play around are as much a condemnation of failed policy as are burned-out teachers or inadequate classrooms8.
Thesis 12: 24th August 2006