What schools can learn from babies

Babies are organic learning machines. I’m seeing that more clearly now, from the perspective of a grandmother.  Each Wednesday, when my granddaughter arrives at my house, I see the developmental changes that have occurred in that short, seven-day interval.

At one month old, the child-rearing books tell me, she could see objects and faces only within an 18-inch range from her face.  A few weeks later, she was tracking movements with her eyes, responding to sounds by turning her head, and beginning to react to familiar faces with a hint of a smile. By six months, she was reaching for the transparent beach ball dangling over her head on her playmat. Last week, she was grasping toys and jangling them. This week, she was using her thumb and forefinger to pick at small threads on a knitted toy.  I’m literally watching a human mind evolve, one week at a time.

My granddaughter is not remarkably different from anyone else’s. Anyone who has spent time observing infants knows that they develop incrementally, from newborn “blobs” into curious, exploring babies and toddlers who absorb information osmotically, using all of their senses.

Unfortunately, our schools don’t seem to view children this way. In many classrooms, children are treated as vessels, into which the all-knowing teacher must pour information according to a recipe and a timetable. Worse yet is testing—in all its incarnations and levels—which is often information-heavy but knowledge-averse and, in some cases, a child-hating activity, pitting the teacher against the student.

Here are a few basic principles that I’ve observed, that schools could learn from babies:

  1. Babies like to be talked to and played with one-to-one with someone they trust.
  2. Babies learn by seeing, touching, smelling, tasting and hearing.
  3. Not all babies gain the same skills or learn the same information at the same point in their chronological development.
  4. Babies experiment. They learn through trial and error. Sometimes they fail in their early attempts, but they keep trying, and they learn from their own mistakes.
  5. Babies and toddlers intuitively seem to know when they’ve been successful.

I’m certain that there are more. My granddaughter just isn’t old enough, yet, to have shown me what they are.

Connect the dots: Schools need to vastly reduce the ratio of kids to adults. And I’m not talking about the conventional idea of “teacher/student ratio.” We need to reinvent our idea of “teacher,” and encourage coaching, mentoring, inspiration and trust. We need to free our children from the shackles of textbooks, and teachers from endless rounds of curriculum development. We need to rediscover play, and make learning joyful again, through experience and experimentation. We also need to stop trying to measure everything, and even to allow our children to fail now and then.

How can these concepts be turned into reality? Here are a few ideas, some, admittedly, easier to accomplish than others:

  1. Bring back recess. In the era of No Test Left Behind, free play has become an endangered species after kindergarten.
  2. Open the classroom to more learning helpers, such as parents, older children, college students, retired people, and community volunteers. Don’t wait for certification, let people work one-to-one, or in small groups, with children, reading to them, listening to them read, playing educational games with them, being their learning partners, sharing and modeling their own love of learning, and developing relationships based on trusting, not testing.
  3. Rethink the concept of “school.” Aggregating large numbers of children together in a box with smaller boxes inside isn’t working. School buildings are part of our crumbling infrastructure: But before we commit billions of dollars to repairing and rebuilding them, let’s examine whether there’s a better way—perhaps “micro-schools.”
  4. Allow for spontaneity in the school day and in the schedule. As things are today, curriculum is so tight and programmed that there’s virtually no room when new opportunities come along. We need our schools to be open to ad hoc learning opportunities.
  5. Rework the notion of “gifted education.” “Gifted” programs often have smaller classes, offer more experiential learning activities and encourage individualized learning. That makes no sense. If schools have determined that these special arrangements create better learning environments, then this is the environment that should be available to all children.
  6. Encourage experimentation. Anyone who has tried to start an “alternative” school in recent years will tell you that it’s a herculean task, not only because of rigid bureaucratic processes, but also because anything that is perceived as different or unmeasurable by standardized testing is generally unwelcome. At least, let’s let innovative people give it a try. How about starting a “News School,” where the curriculum evolves daily, based on developing events in the world around us?

As has been said, and will be said many times on Occasional Planet, these changes will not happen instantly, and the results will not be reportable on a quarterly basis. But if schools could learn from babies, we might actually get culture change and move from teacher/administrator-centric bureaucracies to organizations that celebrate children, honor their natural curiosity, nurture their creativity, and start them on a path toward real learning.

  • Steevala

    Wonderful, common sense prescription for education reform. And what a cute baby!

  • Steevala

    Wonderful, common sense prescription for education reform. And what a cute baby!

  • Ann Mandelstamm

    Loved this article. I especially value the suggestions of more personal interaction with a number of “teachers” and more spontaneity when interesting opportunities come up. I also wish schools could devise ways to take suggestions without feeling defensive. So many ideas are offered freely, uncritically, motivated by affection for students . . . and some of them are excellent. But administrators treat each one as a personal criticism. Too bad!

  • Ann Mandelstamm

    Loved this article. I especially value the suggestions of more personal interaction with a number of “teachers” and more spontaneity when interesting opportunities come up. I also wish schools could devise ways to take suggestions without feeling defensive. So many ideas are offered freely, uncritically, motivated by affection for students . . . and some of them are excellent. But administrators treat each one as a personal criticism. Too bad!

  • You have really great taste on catch article titles, even when you are not interested in this topic you push to read it

  • You have really great taste on catch article titles, even when you are not interested in this topic you push to read it

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