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How Kids Really Learn

The myth of the tableau rasa (blank slate)

Historically, it was assumed that children are blank slates and that it is up to the parent or educator impart all learning and knowledge. For much of the 20th’s century it was believed that infants and young children lack the ability to form complex ideas. In addition, it was further thought that language was a prerequisite for abstract thought and that complex subjects like history, science, or social studies should take a back seat to reading and math. In fact, the No Child Left Behind, legislation with an intent to improve national educational outcomes has had the unintended impact of facilitating the rapid removal of most subjects other than reading and math from most elementary curricular programs.

Today we know that children, even very young children, are active learners who assemble and organize information at a rapid and efficient rate; who can formulate goals, make plans, and revise those goals. Children may lack knowledge and experience, but they do not lack reasoning ability.

The myth of “developmentally appropriate” subjects

Because educators believe that students should only be exposed to materials that match their developmental stages, many elementary and middle school students are not exposed to foundational content for science, history or social studies. Emphasis is driven by the idea that reading comprehension must come before exposure to abstract concepts or vocabulary.

But today, we know that development and learning are not two parallel processes. Early biological underpinnings enable certain types of interactions, and through various environmental supports from caregivers and other cultural and social supports, a child’s experiences for learning are expanded. Learning is promoted and regulated both by children’s biology and ecology, and learning produces development. In other words, the more a child is exposed to a variety of learning domains, the more they develop the ability to understand and master those domains.

The advantage of content-rich knowledge-based curriculum

Because of the widespread belief among educators that non-hands on science is inappropriate for young children, students are not exposed to the language and meaning of scientific terms and concepts. Content-rich knowledge-based programs for science are not typically taught to elementary and sometimes middle-school students. However, this assumption is not supported by the evidence and in fact, the opposite is observed. Students enjoy and understand subjects and content that we have been withholding from them. If young children are introduced to real science in concrete and understandable ways, they have a far greater chance to reengage with those subjects later on and be far better equipped to do so. A strong science curriculum should be organized and strategically sequenced, rich in content and vocabulary, both within and across grade levels.

The line between boredom and frustration – letting kids struggle

In our modern world we rarely let our kids struggle. We actively prevent them from facing either boredom or frustration. For the child that struggles because the coursework is difficult, we blame the teacher or publisher for non-developmentally appropriate materials. For the child that struggles because they find the coursework or material boring, we again blame the teacher or publisher for not providing enough material that challenges them.

Yet learning only happens on the line between frustration and boredom. We cannot entertain our children into an education. Programs that entertain can stimulate interest, but unless the child is taught to take that interest and explore their own ideas they don’t gain a deeper understanding or ever master the content. Information that easily floats in easily floats back out and is lost.

Talent is grown, not born

We all want talented kids. Whether we are an educator or a parent, we want our kids to learn enough in the years we have tutelage over them to launch them into and have them successfully navigate the adult world. We are often in awe of the talent youngsters that quickly pick up the skills of a musician and effortlessly play the Moonlight Sonata, or those that seem to think in numbers and formulas, solving complex math problems at a young age. Who isn’t moved by the surprising talents of a young person who masters skills at a far faster rate than the rest of us?

But talent isn’t reserved for only the young and talented. Talent can be grown. A child who dreams of being an astronaut should have every advantage presented to them to learn the language of science and engineering so the talented astronaut within can be realized.