What is learning anyway?

Updated: Mar 13

We offer so many things at our school that can't always be demonstrated on paper... so many things that are so much more than who can memorize the most information or who is the most ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’. We are here for the people, not products.

There is a somewhat serious joke that says if we decided to add walking to the school curriculum, within 50 years society would believe that walking couldn’t be learned outside of a traditional classroom.

Traditional factory-style education models have had an almost inexplicable hold over society for over a century. Why?

When we, as parents, look back over the last 20 years or so of our lives, since we were teenagers, have we not already seen immense far reaching changes in how children live their lives? And look at how technology is rapidly changing the ways we seek information, interact with every day activities and with each other. Yet, we have seen very few changes in education. Most schools still emphasize standardization, memorization and reaching arbitrary benchmarks. Using tests and scorecards perpetuates the assumption that everybody should reach a certain level by a certain timeline or else “something is wrong and needs remediation”. Ultimately, whether intentional or not, the entire system of formal education tends to discourage individuality and independence, creativity and innovation, and critical and divergent thinking.

Is it really so scary a perspective or abnormal response to just keep trusting that the natural progression of learning will happen for our child when the time is right as long as they are in a supportive and enriching environment?

When we feel we only have one chance, only 18 short years, to do it right, it’s scary. But no one has “failed” if a child turns 18 and hasn’t learned or memorized all the random things someone else (or the government) has deemed necessary and important.

Most of the true leaders, the successful entrepreneurs and inventors, the great artists and athletes, the heroes of history, and the people who continue to make a real difference in their careers and lives (all types of Changemakers) did not take the standard path to reach success.

Even the Ivy league universities are starting to recognize and even prioritize those who have had a non-traditional education. If a top-ranked university is something you and your child have an interest in pursuing, it’s worth reading this article.

Humans were not meant to cram all knowledge into our brains in the first part of our lives. Development actually teaches us the opposite. The first period of our lives is for growth, play, exploration, making mistakes, understanding communication, experiencing joy, indulging in imagination and there is no magic number where that should be forced to end.

I’m 39 years old. Am I reading at a 39 year old’s reading level? (Hard to say because I read different types of books and have a different schedule than most of my other 39-year old peers).

Is my writing where it should be for a 39 year old? (I’m pretty good but still need help with proofreading, editing and keeping things concise).

What about my math skills? Can I pass a 39th year math test? (Highly unlikely to pass the 39th year math test but I am getting better at math each year as I work with accountants and budgets to further my passions and goals in education).

After the last two years of parenting, completing my Master’s and starting a school all during a pandemic, I am quite sure I would fail my 39th-grade physical education test this year. (However, when I was 32 my fitness was an A+!)

What about you? Are you at your grade level in life? And if you aren’t - what should we do about it? Should we add more prescribed homework? Or a few hours of tutoring to your week? Mandatory adulting classes? Should someone carefully control the books you’re allowed to read or the courses you take? (Adapted from: Your Natural Learner, Leah McDermott).

It doesn't seem to make as much sense when we say these things to adults. Yet, we find it perfectly acceptable to create a world of control, judgement and assessment for our children and teens - and then we act surprised when they grow up and have mental health challenges and struggle in their relationships both in their workplace and at home.

Of course we want our children and students to have strong communication skills and critical thinking skills and want them to be able to read and write! We also want them to have a love of reading, writing and learning for their entire lives.

Of course we want our students to have a sense of numeracy and know how and why and where math matters and, if that's their passion, to challenge them to go farther and deeper into all things related to math.

We want all of our students to understand history so they don’t repeat the worst parts of it. We want them to delight in science and STEAM and feel inspired to innovate, invent and create to make the world better or at least a more exciting place. We want them to learn how to pick up another language so they can understand what it’s like to communicate in another way and connect on a deeper level with different people around the world. We want them to be good citizens and compassionate humans who can find a balance between meeting their own needs and the needs of others.

But if a metric doesn’t matter to us when we hit adulthood, then we shouldn’t let it matter for children either.

Here are the research supported facts: a child makes a decision about who they are as a learner by the time they are 8 years old.

By 4th grade, statistical analysis in studies have shown that, although abilities and skills can change and improve dramatically at any age (ie.neuroplasticity), it is extremely difficult to change a child’s perception and desire to learn if they already believe they are not ‘smart’ (or, on the flip side, if they firmly believe they are the smartest in the room and have already learned all they need to know)!

The research is clear: we are harming our children by pressuring them to perform and by ignoring what helps them love to learn. And the effects can last for the rest of their lives. Nothing in the curriculum is worth your child losing their passion for learning. We don't want our parents or educators to allow their fears to push your curious and creative little human into a box that might end up making them feel worthless, incapable or that the only way to be happy is to please other people all the time.

It is our mission to make you challenge everything you have believed in the past about learning and school, no matter how uncomfortable it might make you. And that takes courage. It takes courage to think outside of the box that most of us lived in for at least 12 of our school-aged years. It takes courage to embrace thinking about learning differently and to try doing things a different way, especially when it comes to something so foundational to our society as education. Especially when it comes to our children.

But it’s time to start shifting towards more conscious choices in this world, and the way in which we help our children learn and grow needs to be at the heart of these decisions.

Learning something new is magical. That magic doesn’t ever have to go away. The spark only dies when someone else starts controlling it too much. If we are careful not to squash the spark when our children are still children, it will still be alive when they are teens and adults!

Can you imagine that kind of world? Where everyone finds a way to follow their passions and their abilities to earn a living, solves problems for the joy in helping others, collaborates and debates with respectful enthusiasm, and learns as much as possible purely because they want to?!

Parents and Educators: You hold the power of the future in your hands. The question is: what will you do with it?

In the race to be perceived as ‘the best’, wanting to give their children a head start and advantage, too many parents and schools forget about:

  • making time for childhood;