What We Don’t Know About Learning and Education

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” – Albert Einstein

In our age of progress there is a tendency to believe that, through science, we have definitively revealed many mysteries of the universe.  While our collective knowledge may seem impressive, it should be a call for humility rather than hubris.  As Einstein reminds us, this seemingly impressive accumulation of knowledge may only indicate how little we really know.

On the matter of learning and education we still cannot answer such basic questions as how we learn to read.  Or how we learn to talk.  Or how we learn to walk.  Or why learning to walk means learning to fall.  And why our brains hold 10 times the memory capacity as previously thought.  Maybe it is stored in our guts.  Research isn’t answering questions about learning and education as much as it’s raising them.

As it stands today there is a great schism between the revelations of contemporary science and actual education practices.  This schism is best exemplified by a 2010 joint statement from the Alliance for Childhood signed by dozens of researchers and advocates on how the then proposed Common Core standards “conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.”  In other words, education practices interfere with a miraculous process science is only beginning to unravel.

For instance, there appears to be overwhelming evidence that play is critical to human development yet it continues to be squeezed out of the classroom.  The schism between the evidence on the importance of play and actual education practices is depressingly highlighted by a current debate in Florida over a law that would mandate at least 20 minutes of recess per day.

Likewise, it is probable that we’ve developed education practices based on faulty models of human behavior that are susceptible to exploitationResearch has suggested that humans are intrinsically motivated to learn about the world and to develop and master their talents.  Attempting to manipulate this natural inclination with external rewards and/or punishments disrupts its functioning.  For example, a classic study showed that rewarding preschool children to draw with magic markers decreased their interest in drawing as well as the quality of their drawings.  Repeated failures and a confined setting lead to a condition referred to as “learned helplessness” which is only overcome by giving students the freedom to develop the problem solving skills needed to achieve self mastery without punishing them for what we judge as failure.

The root of these issues can be found in assuming a sometimes unrecognized posture of hubris rather than humility when it comes to our ability to control and direct the learning and education of our young people.  Scientific research continually reveals the importance of allowing young people the maximum amount of freedom possible to exercise their innate abilities to grow and develop.  Unstructured play, intrinsic motivation, self-organizing systems of cooperative learning, and the mysterious power of having a high-image of students are just some of the areas of research which show how precious little we actually understand about learning and education.

These insights should give us a reason to collectively pause, take a breath, consider the evidence, and reimagine education in light of what we don’t know.  Scientific research is revealing the depth of our ignorance not the power of our understanding.  It is time to humbly stand down and admit that we do not know as much as we think.  Scientific research should be celebrated for revealing the limits of our knowledge and inspire us to humbly continue our quest for knowledge.  When it comes to our knowledge of learning and education we are explorers standing ankle deep near the shore of a vast and unfathomable ocean.

In the mean time, we should free our young people to play, explore their world, work things out, make friends, work together (and apart), and to discover and develop their unique gifts and talents.  More than a barrage of tests and constantly changing standards, our young people need freedom, good role models, love, care, attention, the opportunity to take on responsibility and make decisions about their own lives, and time to let the mysterious processes of learning and education unfold in the ways they do – ways we may never fully understand.


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