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Kids want to learn in school

Peter Goodman


To discuss education in New Mexico, first I gotta rant about education.

I start from two premises: kids desperately want, above all, to learn; and the substance of the first six years of public school could be picked up in six months by a motivated, fairly clever adolescent.

Kids want to learn. They’re in this huge, confusing world, clueless, and they’re “alert as a Hawkshaw” for any clue how to be here. They’re born learning machines.

Parents and schools often beat that out of them. Not with physical beatings (we hope) but with disapproval, judgments, and insistence that we know what they should do or be interested in.

My second premise comes from A.S. Neill. His school, Summerhill, was a great experiment that’s been followed to good effect. What he did couldn’t be replicated in a public school because of budget, community politics, and other factors; but what he learned and said shouldn’t be dismissed. (We don’t dismiss the words of Jesus or John Muir because the world doesn’t run that way. We listen to their wisdom, assess it critically, and try to harmonize what we learn with life in a world of greed and self-absorption. Follow them as best we can.)

At Summerhill, classes were optional. Some kids attended, others mostly explored the woods or made things. Teachers were there, to teach or answer questions; but if multiplication or algebra seemed less essential than watching the bees or taking apart clocks or engines, so what? If you developed your brain and judgment and powers of concentration doing whatever appealed to you, you’d figure out how to apply that basic brainpower and focus to math, grammar, and chemistry – when the time came.

Neill had one kid who spent all his time in the woods. At 16, he decided he wanted to take the examination required for further schooling. He learned what he needed to learn in six months.

Schools don’t work that way. I get that. But what if they could bend a little. Make chess or bridge available as games that develop certain important aspects of one’s intellect, such as problem-solving? Perhaps have a class with no syllabus, or an optional one: kids could discuss things that matter to them, that pique their curiosity, sans grades or judgment, trying to figure stuff out together?

Everything a child does, from watching adults intently, through pushing or breaking things, to putting everything in her mouth is an experiment. “If I do thus or so, what will happen?” And while we need to protect children from some serious potential errors, we also need to let them do their job. Their job is doing every experiment they can think up to figure out this crazy world, and only they can see what they need to learn. We can guide them, offer them tools and toys to learn from, and pull a hand away from a hot stove; but “controlling” kids completely doesn’t facilitate real learning.

Schools’ first principle should be, “Kids desperately want to learn.” Educators should see themselves as facilitating kids’ gathering of skills, knowledge, strategies, and ideas that can help one survive and prosper. Schools should not see their role as ensuring each kid learns the specific material in a specific syllabus. Kids arrive excited, energetic, cheerful, and curious, then many leave sullen and resentful.

We must all nourish that curiosity, helping it flower into knowledge and critical thinking.