World is the curriculum; not the word
re-visiting why, what and how children learn
Learning is the basis of life. All living beings are cognitive beings. All living beings learn. Learning is the natural mechanism to sustain life. They are internally designed by nature to learn in order to live. They have tools with differing capacities to support learning.
Before we go further into exploring the 'human' learning ecology it is important to remind ourselves of our biological nature and that all biological beings learn in accordance with the internal laws of each species and their given contexts. Even though modern man wants to assert his difference and boast his greatness from the rest of life, it is important to remember that we have minor similarities with all life forms and also some abilities that other living beings have. Let us keep this in mind as we explore the learning process of human beings.
Cognitive conditions dictate not only what and how we learn but also what we be.
In this sense culture is the cognitive conditions and the cognitive source. We are formed by culture as much as we are forming the culture. I would like to draw attention to the primacy of cognitive condition/space in the act of knowing/being. Through the following four situations the above point will be easier to understand.
Children in Bangalore slums can speak about 4 to 5 languages by time they are 5 years old.
Look at this situation carefully.
There is no one teaching consciously , no one is learning consciously, no memorizing, no syllabus, no order of learning, no test etc. etc. etc . Knowing is happening all the time whether we want it or not..
None of the methods we use in our schooling system is used here. In most parts of India people who study up to MA cannot speak in English unless they have folks speaking English at home. These children also pick many skills in the environment- electric repair, auto repair etc in similar fashion. Women learn cooking in similar fashion. It is not learned in order. Whatever is seen, experienced is absorbed without choice and the mind re order whatever has gone in. Self organizing system is the word invented to explain this in cognitive science.
Two most important lessons are 1 conscious memory is not needed and 2. reasoning is integrated with non- reasoning. or we could call this spontaneous reasoning. And the way they remember without conscious memorizing could be called 'organic memory'.
These are our biological capacities which are not learned but awakened.
The second situation.
People in indigenous non literate communities do not have the concept of ‘waste’ nor do they have a word meaning 'waste'.
They do not WASTE and they use whatever comes in their way. So the children living in this cognitive space do not learn about waste. An attitude is built due to this.
But in urban situation we have in our living space itself a basket named ‘waste paper basket’ and this situation teaches the child about wasting. That there is something called waste and they can waste etc.
Once a friend of mine was in a village market. There he came across a 12 year old girl making and selling beautiful bamboo baskets. He enquired whether she could teach him to make such beautiful things. She replied she doesn’t know how to teach. Then he requested whether she could teach him how she learned.
She was puzzled by this question, thought for a while and answered that she did not learn!!!
A ten year old child who exhibited or behaved like an autistic person was brought to an orphanage. By mingling with other children who did not have autism he became completely normal. On enquiring it was found that his parents were both autistic. The child imbibed or imitated their behavior. This was found also with a child who learned to limp from his father who actually had one leg short.
Isn't it important to study the cognitive conditions that enabled this learning? Imbibing, imitating, absorbing and learning happened naturally from what children experienced.
All the four situations point to learning that happens naturally and as per the logic of biological and physiological processes at work.
Children learn the world, the way they experience it
What the child learns, left to itself is the way the world is. The world awakens the child to the workings of the world in the child. Each species does this by engaging with the world autonomously.
The process of being in the world is already in the new born in general terms and the particular space awakens the particular qualities, quite like the way child learns particular language. We are born with knowledge of life as well as knowledge of the species. The context awakens the particular qualities to root ourselves in that space.
So children are learning the way the world looks, the quality or the property of its materiality and the functions, processes and the various phenomenon that happens around them. This is the most scientific way of understanding the world around as well as sharpening the tools to understand the world and developing the qualities to be in the world. The integrity of the world is retained by this integral way of relating to the world. The wholistic nature of the world awakens the wholistic nature in the child.
'Knowing by being' is the process by which children imbibe and there is no compartmentalization of subjects- language, art, science etc. Child by nature is integrated and whole and so is the world and fragmentation of modern human beings is due the way they are made to see fragmented and compartmentalized world right from childhood. Cognitive conditions of modernity forces children out of this biologically rooted way of being and knowing and schooling totally reinforces rationality as their cognitive process.
Children imbibe choicelessly what they experience. The content of the learning is based on the way life happens in nature. All living beings learn and to sustain life is the purpose of all learnings. The details depend on the learner and the context in which the learner is located. The hen, dog and man would learn different things from the same environment. All are equipped with the tools and skills get developed or awakened as each one engages with the context. The dog's hearing and smell sense is far superior to the man’s because of biological necessity and may be, what the hen can see we may not see. What matters is that we are equipped as per our species' requirements to live. This is awakened by the external context and conditions.
Children, where ever they are born- east or west- are born with the universal and eternal knowledge and the potential to root themselves to their respective natural contexts and also at the same time awakened to their full potential by it. But more and more the contexts are becoming disconnected from the real natural contexts and instead of awakening conditions are set for conditioning the child. Children are also misled from the real world into the world of words. Language traps them into a make believe two dimensional world.
The school has become the main and organized site of destruction of the eternal, universal and the context. So intervention is required there also. So research needs to be done as to how to help the child to retain its inherent capacity for connecting to the eternal.
But before all this deep study has to be done with the help of children how to be in the world by setting up conditions for their awakening. That is to learn from children how to organize the space. This requires total attention and sensitivity.
Children learn the word to articulate
The real meaning of the child learns to speak means the child learns to articulate its understanding of the world. The childs language can not be seperated from the experience she is having of the world.
There is the integrity of its experience of the world with the language or languages she uses to express or articulate.
We impose through language what ever is not actually present. All the artificial categories and divisions are imposed on the child through language.
The child if left alone will learn the way the world actually functions. There is day and night, we sleep in the night and are awake in the day, hunger makes us look for food, we cultivate or hunt etc, etc.
Literates learn the word instead of the world
Literacy re configures the biological aspects of making sense of the world into psychological.
The content of the today's education are words. We learn the word instead of the world. Children are introduced to words much before they experience the world around them. Instead of children naming their experience adults around give words to their experience. They are also introduced to the written word in this manner. Slowly the hearing and seeing action is forced to bypass the experiencing faculty and directly give input to mind. This constant process rewires the cognitive process there by eliminating the physiological functions in the act of making sense of the world. Experience no longer informs the mind, the mind directs what to experience! When experience precede the words, as we experience the world it is almost like language fell in place. Respecting and acknowledging the ability in children to make sense of the world was the basis in traditional non literate communities. The integrity of experience and language is worth noting and it is in this manner we make sense of the world too.
Reading places us into a structure of knowing which is fundamentally mental and non- experiential. This act re entrenches the reader into a mental, 'rational' being. The object of knowledge and the process of engagement alter the knower. The invisible nature and characteristic of the written word calls forth from its user processes that are not the same when we are engaging with the real. We have to make up images that are often images of images from previous reading experience- as one text reminds us of another text ,reason constantly working in the background to conclude.
Understanding takes place in the realm in which cognition has taken place. Linguistic inputs are ‘understood’ at the realm of language. Experiential inputs are understood at the realm of experience and the processes are very different from other paradigms.
Learning from experience or is it Learning THE experience?
See how language plays with us. Experience is the only way in which the being learns. It learns what it experiences.
‘Modern’ crisis is a crisis in cognition. Human being is in some totally helpless as the cognitive conditions to which they are born seals their fate as to what they learn. How they learn is biology. The human being has no control over it. It is like telling you can choose what to eat (to some extent) but you cant descide how to digest it.
Schooling creates the illusion that we experience first and then learn from it. This points to the fragmentation of the mind and body in the act of learning. In school we learn the theory first and then apply. But in real life experience itself is what is being imbibed and learned. The way we use language or the very structure of language makes us use it in a manner that creates this confusion. when we say we learned to cycle we assume that learning happened first and as a result of which we cycle.
Teacher teaches the child to teach
So when we 'TEACH' what children learn is 'TO TEACH'. In fact as we grow older we acquire the 'teacher mind set' due to internalization or imbibing of 'teaching' experience. This is the way our biology functions.
One learns to learn in a context where learning is happening. Learning is not a choice. Purpose of learning is already embedded in the structure of the living being.
In order to learn, one's tools or organs and qualities for learning has to be awakened. Children learn to talk by being in the context where talking is happening. The child must have the ability to hear, to see the act of talking, the movement of the lips, the quality of attention etc gets developed in the process. The silence in between, the tonal difference, the ability to differentiate language, gestures, the loving touch and other nuances are part and parcel of learning to talk or learning to communicate.
The mind operates very naturally in children and non literates which is to say that mind is in sync with the biological/physiological aspects of senses. So the eyes are involved in seeing and not thinking. Similarly with other senses. What schooling does is to deny this aspect of senses- the eye and ear particularly and turn them in to mental activities. So what you hear makes you think instead of listening to the sound.
We who have been schooled will find it difficult to use the actual cognitive ability of seeing without thinking because for us thinking is the capacity that is connected with knowledge and mind has been so trained to 'learn' without sense inputs.
May be seeing is THE cognitive act. This is to say that seeing has deeper aspects which we are not used to. In fact we have lost the natural ability of seeing. Children and the non literates (the sense cognites) see both the whole and the particular. I used to say they have unfocussed attention. That is they see everything around them. When we look we only see what we particularly look for. In normal case we, the so called educated has lost the ability to see itself. We are quite often in our mind. Even though we may be physically present we are mentally absent. So seeing is an act we have to do deliberately.
The real world demands our total being to be present when engaging/ experiencing. The process is – the event/phenomenon - observation/ experience - absorbing or imbibing what is happening- self organizing by the being – understanding – communication. There is neither conscious reasoning nor memorizing. Deeper understanding happens by deeper involvement, attention, awareness and what calls for is clarity in seeing/ sensing/ feeling.
The intangible, the unconscious and the spontaneous is at work all the time.
Modernity rewires our cognitive tools and places reasoning and memory at the center - one for accessing and other for storing ‘knowledge’. This happens so because we have been made to deal with well organized knowledge either from text/ experts or now the digital means.
This is how we rewire the mind with reading.
As we read we agree or disagree with the writer (we call this critical thinking) and what we agree ends up as our knowledge. Reading and reasoning becomes modern mans cognitive tool /process. His role then becomes that of verifying what he has read and is never in discovery mode unless some shock happens that throws him out of his 'knowledge'.
The so called illiterates have a different process. Their body/ senses engage with what is around and observe the natural phenomenon which are based on universal laws and participate in it. knowledge is awakened from inside. The structure and nature of the real world awakens the same in us. After all aren't we the world itself?
Children in indigenous communities
Children in indigenous cultures are like any other newborn animal. The nature has its ways to make them grow and all the skills of an adult world are introduced in the games, toys children make. Children from sustainable cultures make their own toys. Toy need not be anything in particular but any thing that catches the interest of the child. The toy is most often incomplete without the toy maker. Most of these toys are made from materials found around the place. Children's world in the traditional communities are always populated and mixed with the adult’s world unlike the modern culture where every category is fragmented and compartmentalized.
To the young child, play is life itself. A child engrossed in play is innovative, free and happy. Through the variety and depth of play the child learns and grows. It is serious business; it is her or his world. For the adult play is seen as recreation, something that takes place in leisure time. Some how the adult has learned to believe that play should occur at a time when one is not working(Evans 1974)
The real question is what prevents us from seeing or what distorts our perception.
What makes us see the child the way we want to see and not the way child is?
Medium is the message; children learn to be teachers!
The Teaching teacher teaches the child to teach. They also teach authoritarianism, mindless obedience, blind fear of power and authority etc.
Children imitate, absorb and internalize what they encounter and experience. They absorb the world as it happens in front of the child. That is why children play 'teacher games' at home. Play is the manner in which children internalize and concretize whatever they experience. This is what learning is in the real world. So the linguistic information- knowledge as per the adult- is only a minor part of what children learn especially in their formative years. What the children needs to see, to engage, to experience is a leaner learning or knowledge being created in a natural and organic manner and not a teacher teaching. A learner engaged in learning cannot be authoritarian. But the teacher has no choice. Just the fact that they 'teach' makes them authority. And the child also learns that knowledge needs to be got from an authority- teacher, text, and now the internet etc. Because the child never sees knowledge being created as this can happen only in the real contexts.
'Teaching' teaches ’authoritarianism’ and 'learning' teaches 'democracy'. That is why we find amid ourselves only the 'tribal' people practice true democracy. A tribal father hardly ever says no to a child and hardly ever teaches.
Irrational, compulsive reasoning!
Repeated use of reasoning to comprehend makes knowledge in to a mental activity with no authentic role for experience and senses. Throughout our education we have never once seen nor experienced 'knowledge' that we have supposed to have learned being created. We 'believed' in the knowledge. What is superstition then? If we mug up the terminologies which are called as science do we become scientists? Even with the help of reason, aren't we only believing in readymade knowledge?
In fact conscious reasoning short circuits comprehension. Comprehension like digestion is involuntary act of the human being and like the digestion comprehension happens. And like the way digested food gets integrated and transforms the person comprehend knowledge also gets integrated and transforms the person. What has been comprehended due to self-organization has semblance of order and this order is misunderstood as if this has been achieved through reasoning. Talk about creativity is pointless as the creator has been removed from the cognitive act. But mental tricks- divergent thinking, lateral thinking and all that stuff- are misunderstood as creativity.
The beginning of teaching and instructing
Literacy had to be purposely introduced to children by teaching unlike every thing else and as time went by the act of teaching spread to everything that children learned naturally. As literacyspreaded the act of instructing and teaching children also spread throughout the society and it got established as the culture of the western world. When western educational paradigm got introduced in India and literacy spread here the same behavior also got implanted here. Teaching and instructing children became the norm. Literacy also established the primacy of thought and the act of seeing receded.
My proposal is to try to explore what can be called the cognitive system just like digestive system, nervous system and muscular system etc as a function of the living being. We need not wait for the expert to tell us but using our own uncommon common sense we can explore.
But more important than all this is to recover our natural , biologically rooted cognitive system in which the self organzing system with us function to 'understand' and not reasoning. Can we get back the habits of seeing, sensing, feeling?
Can we trust life and not boast about man's achievements which is nothing in front of life.
The objective is to create a school for children so that they truly learn what is necessary for them to be sensitive, independent, intelligent, creative, self-reliant and sustainable and at the same time be rooted in their cultural practices and wisdom knowledge. (content)
To develop a totally new kind of school/ space/ condition that includes the whole community and enables the growth of the natural, biological process in children to lead a sustainable, contended and harmonious lives - in harmony with nature, culture, society, family and self . (space)
To develop a sensitive pedagogy that will allow the natural flowering of the child’s innate potential. (pedagogy)