When I ask friends and family “what do you think of when I say 'learning'?” I’m surprised by how many of them relate it to school and academics, and how few actually venture beyond these realms. Call me a romantic idealist, but doesn’t learning entail so much more than grades, report cards and academic accolades? After all, human beings undergo their most rapid rate of cognitive, social and physical development as newborns, a time when schooling is essentially a non-issue. So, I decided to investigate: what exactly is “learning?”
Abolishing the Learner Type
There are, in fact, a host of ways to classify learning. Myers-Briggs personality tests, Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, Interpersonal vs. Intrapersonal styles, and the Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic models are but a few of the many choices parents and teachers can contemplate.
Speaking to experts in the field, though, it seems the less we categorize and the more we approach children as individuals, the better learners they will become. “To label is to create misconceptions,” says Isela Shipton of Care for Children Services. She advises parents to proceed cautiously with personality, IQ and learner profile tests and, generally disagrees with classification systems that pigeonhole children (and adults) into a single category as doing so often entails neglecting equally vital learning traits that a child may possess that would likewise need nurturing. Once we’ve placed a child within specific parameters, Shipton argues, we treat them a specific way. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby certain learning traits are reinforced and thus, become stronger, making the child appear to fit even more within those parameters.
It’s important to remember that, to a certain degree, each person possesses every type of “learning style.” Just because a child expresses a preference for one over the other does not mean he or she cannot or will not learn in other ways. Shipton compares learning to making soup: the more spices involved, the more flavorsome it will taste; the more vegetables used, the more wholesome it will be. So, rather than delving into all the different traits a child might possess (of which there are trillions), she suggests parents take the time to better understand the process of learning and then actively apply this understanding to their own children.
How We Learn
Sharon Keenan, retired director of The International Montessori School of Beijing, reveals how the newborn brain responds to a strange new world and begins to make sense of it: “We learn from the moment we are born through stimuli received via the five senses. These then travel through the nervous system to the brain.”
According to her and Shipton, the five senses are vital to a baby’s learning as they are all it has at its disposal. And so it follows that babies are inclined to explore the world with all of them, whether it is by “constantly grabbing things, putting dirt in their mouths, or picking up dog poo” says Shipton. For new mothers, this type of hands-on learning is a cause for fear or, at the very least, concern, but she assures that these are all perfectly normal, healthy actions for little ones. It shows that they’re curious about the world around them—they’re busy testing it, and discovering and processing all the new information.
On average, children spend the first three years of life responding to stimuli in their environment and storing the impressions in their brains. These slowly fire up and form a complex and vast network of neural pathways that physically hardwire the brain together. Over time, repeated exposure to events and experiences and the firing up of the brain again and again leads to the development of a triggered response to a specific stimulus.
By the time a child has reached the age of 3, he/she has stored an incredible backlog of sensory impressions, and is finally ready to begin processing what they all mean. This is done by activating the brain in a different way, one that allows him to attach meaning to what he sees, feels, hears, smells and tastes. It’s at this point that a child’s individuality is most apparent. “This individuality or personality is what defines the ‘type’ of learner someone is,” says Keenan. “Just as no two fingerprints are the same for any human being, no two learners are the same. We are all unique.” Thus, trying to classify the “type” of learner someone is would be the equivalent of trying to classify the type of person they are: it’s futile.
According to Keenan, an individual’s learning “style” rarely changes over time. “For the most part, because of how the brain is wired at birth, it does not and will not vary," she says. "What changes is the way we adapt to our particular style of learning so that we may function more effectively and productively.” Simply put, we are born with a specific set of traits encoded within our genes. These are then shaped to fit our circumstances and environments. However, since young children cannot actively reflect upon how they may best adapt, it is up to parents to do this for them. “The most useful tool a parent has at his or her disposal is observation,” Shipton says. The key is to start doing it from the beginning.
A large part of pre-school, for example, is stepping back and allowing children to figure out what works best for them. Free from the benchmarks and milestones of grade school, pre-schoolers are at liberty to understand and experiment with how they relate to the world. Parents should take note and let their children be, taking care not to interfere or push for too much too soon.
What I Learned
So my initial instincts were right: there is much more to learning than grades. Ironically, in dissecting what “learners” we are, we are undoing some of the most important lessons we had as a toddler.
This is why Shipton encourages parents to disassociate learning with education altogether. These days, she claims, parents and schools alike “push academia too much, too hard, too early.” In particular, she laments how the senses get left behind as we grow older, and how our focus is geared towards books and report cards. “Kids should be allowed to play,” she says. “Write that in caps and bold letters and put my name on it.”
If every parent’s wish is to have their child do well in school, then my wish is for them to realize this begins outside the classroom. Ultimately, there is no easy “test” we can take that spells out our individual learning needs. Instead, the most sensible thing to do is to approach learning as we approach individuality: foster it, cultivate it and nurture it. For children to become the best learners they can be, parents and teachers must engage them and support their innate desire to explore the world on every level. And for many, this means learning how to be kids all over again. As Shipton asks, “how many parents really play with their kids? How many do you see getting muddy in the playground?”