What is learning?

Above: images of spontaneous learning which takes place around here on a daily basis.

Some time ago, I was really pleased to come across this article, which speaks about a new research showing that early academic achievements aren’t necessarily beneficial to a child’s learning process in the long run. Actually, the same principle has been discussed 25 years ago in the excellent book Better Late Than Early.

Not long ago, we were at a social gathering with another family. Their children, aged 5 and 3, dazzled us all with a display of their mathematical and foreign language skills. Turns out that such things are now taught in private preschools. To me, however, it sounded more like parroting than actual learning, encouraged for the parents’ bragging rights rather than for the children themselves.

Of course it’s possible to argue that each child learns at a different pace, and we’ve all heard of prodigies who have learned to play the piano at the age of 3, wrote advanced poetry by the age of 5, etc. However, here we are talking about a roomful of 3-year-olds who are all sat down in a circle and drilled until they memorize counting until 30, or the names of the days in the week in English (we’re talking about children whose mother tongue is Hebrew, of course).

Naturally the daily drill is sugar-coated by fun, games, colorful flashcards and lots of positive reinforcement (clap hands! Clap hands! What clever little children!). However, I believe putting an emphasis on this kind of achievement hinders the child-led learning, free thinking and free play which are so important for young children’s physical and mental development. Furthermore, the children are being robbed of the delight of learning for its own sake, of the thrill of discovery. They do what they do for rewards, attention, peer competition or in order to please their parents and teachers.

Some will say that these are musings of a lazy parent who is unwilling to teach her children anything. I disagree. Encouraging children to memorize facts and rewarding them for it with sweets or stickers is easier than promoting their independent efforts to explore what interests them, let alone finding time to answer their many questions about life and the world we live in.

Educational Attitudes

Image result for unschooling
For a long time, I had felt that unschooling is the very thing for each and every child of every age; I literally felt guilty every time I tried to teach reading or math, even if my children responded well, and doubly so if they bristled. After engaging in some very enlightening discussions with other parents, I went through a process of in-depth introspection which convinced me that:

– It’s quite alright and, in fact, advisable to actively teach children older than 6 to read, write and count.

– It’s quite alright to gently but firmly enforce discipline in homeschooling, just as in other areas of home life (chores, meal times, times of visiting friends, etc).

– I’m not a bad parent if I sometimes make my children do things they don’t like. I will occasionally encounter tears, tantrums, whining, and complaints, and my confidence as a parent should not be undermined by that. I don’t need to be afraid that they will hate me for setting some rules, on the contrary (as long as it is all done with good intentions and a loving spirit).

– I’m not destroying spontaneous learning or my children’s interests/hobbies/curiosity if I introduce some structured learning into our day. The total of the basic subjects (spelling, reading, math) I aim to cover each day takes approximately two hours, spread through the morning: for example, an hour of math after breakfast, then a break and mid-morning snack, and another hour of writing/spelling before lunch. We don’t have homework. So this still leaves plenty of time for the children to pursue their interests, do crafts, play outside, read, write, draw or look at picture books, meet friends, and so on.

I am still a big proponent of plenty of quiet free time, especially exposure to nature, for each child, every day. When I say “free time”, I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV or computer, naturally, but anything that stimulates curiosity, creativity and imagination: reading, crafts, dress-up, exploring the outdoors, etc.

I have made a quiet resolution that I will correct my daughter’s written work only during “school time”, but not when she shows me a story she had written for her own and her sister’s amusement (unless she specifically asks me to check her spelling). I believe that a child who perhaps struggles a little with spelling at this point, but who loves to write and does it all the time, eventually will become a better writer, with a richer language, than a child who does everything in a perfectly neat and orderly way, but only as a school exercise.

This need for free time and unstructured play is felt by me especially strongly in the winter days, which are so short. I see school children coming home when the best part of the day is already gone – barely two hours left before sunset, when it gets too cold to be out. The children, as young as 6, are already so bogged down with homework that one of my daughters’ friends told us once she might not be able to attend the birthday party at our house because she has so much homework. This, I believe, is tragic. Surely little children deserve better balance in their lives.

No more summer?

I opened the local newspaper this week and blinked. “Summer school is about to open”, it said. Well, I must have been out of the loop for a good long while, because I have only just learned that our Ministry of Education is running a pilot program, in the course of which schools are required to provide something like “school lite” for the first three weeks of the summer. Participation is voluntary and the payment depends on the family’s income – low-income families are supposed to get this lovely program for free.

I turned to my husband and asked, “don’t the kids get enough school as it is?”; my sentiment was echoed in many comments on the web made by students, who all basically say, “give us our summer vacation and let us rest after the hard work we pull in school all year.”

I realize that in families where both parents work (or, at least, both parents work outside the home), the question of What To Do With The Kids is a major one. No matter how much parents and women’s rights organizations clamor to have an ever longer government-funded school day, kindergarten or daycare program, to this day a family cannot rely on government-funded programs alone. So people sign up for private afternoon programs, hire babysitters, beg grandparents for some help, and register their children in a multitude of summer camps. Having a government-organized, government-funded program for a large part of the summer vacation can seem like manna sent from heaven.

I understand and sympathize, but I still don’t think it’s good for the children.

When the children are young and parents send them to a daycare or preschool, they basically turn the daycare provider or the preschool teacher into the most influential person in this child’s life. In the current reality, the child spends more time with the daycare provider or preschool teacher than he does with his parents. And you know what really gets to me? Often, the parents don’t even have much conscious choice regarding the identity of the person who cares for their child. Their choice of daycare or preschool is simply determined by where they live or work.

I’m not saying the actual time spent together is the only thing that matters; after all, in most traditional families where the children stay home, they usually see their father far less than their mother. It doesn’t mean that the father is less important, or less loved. But it does mean that the mother is responsible for the practical realities of bringing up the child. If the daycare worker is the one who spends the most time with the child, then this responsibility is shifted on to her.

I will never forget how a little girl of about three years told me, “my preschool teacher’s name is Ruthie.” “That’s nice,” I said, “and what is your Mom’s name?”… she shrugged. “My preschool teacher’s name is Ruthie,” she repeated. She continued to talk about Ruthie for a while, but didn’t say a word about her mother. Somehow, this made me incredibly sad.

Most preschool teachers and daycare workers are decent people who care about the general well-being of their charges, but they don’t individually care about each child the way his or her parents do. The essence of what preschool teachers do all day is group management. Their job is to get the kids during the day reasonably content so that they don’t get bored and start fighting. This requires constant entertainment. Also, naturally, many preschool teachers are nicer than the child’s parents. They don’t need to address the core issues of bad behavior, which turns us into the Bad Guys in the little child’s eyes. They don’t give out punishments. They just need to keep everybody happy until everybody goes home – and it would be unreasonable to expect anything else.

In school, things are a little different because there isn’t one teacher that spends the entire school day with the class, but rather, each subject is taught by a different teacher. This gives more influence to the peer group – an even less desirable situation, because though all the kids in a class may be good, they are spoiled by the effect of a large group of children that is cooped up together for long hours.

If that is not enough, there is incessant demand to make school hours even longer, to fund afternoon programs (which will probably soon turn into evening programs), to shorten vacations, to thin out the summer holidays, and so on and so forth. There are also extra-curricular activities, youth movements, and more. The overall trend means the children spend less and less time with their parents – or even on their own. This isn’t much better than the despised children’s houses of the old kibbutz movement.

This over-organizing, over-scheduling works to create passive adults that require close management and constant entertainment in order not to become restless, dissatisfied and bored. This also makes teenagers who have dropped out of school into such a disaster. If these teenagers had been given the right tools at the right age, they could find a place for themselves even if they don’t fit (and not everybody can fit) in an increasingly academic-oriented world. As it is, many of them are lost because it’s either strict school regime or total anarchy; self-management is a foreign concept.

Children need time. Time to grow, to mature, to learn, to dream… on their own. There is time for the positive, educational, organized experiences… but there must also be time for the “doing nothing”. For gentle, spontaneous learning, which can never happen if all our waking hours are strictly regulated.