Learning Prior to School

Small children love to learn, at least before they get to school. No two-year-old has ever taken a walking class, yet any physically healthy two-year-old can walk. No three-year-old has ever taken a talking class, yet every physically healthy three-year-old can talk. No four-year-old has ever taken a course in geography or planning, yet every physically healthy four-year-old can find a room in his home, knows his neighborhood, and can navigate around in his own environment.

Children are little learning machines. Before they ever reach school, they manage to progress from newborns with innate abilities and minimal knowledge to children with an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical, social, and mental worlds in which they live. They accomplish this feat without classrooms, lessons, curricula, examinations, or grades. They are set up for learning before they enter this world. It is the job of parents to help them learn by protecting them from danger and exposing them to new situations. This should be the job of teachers in school as well, but we have long since lost the model of education that would allow it to happen.

In their natural state, that is, prior to school, children do not have motivation problems. Excited by learning, they are eager to try new things, and are in no way self-conscious about failure. We never see a two-year-old who is depressed about how his talking is progressing and so has decided to quit trying to improve. We never see a two-year-old who has decided that learning to walk is too difficult and thus has decided to not try to get beyond crawling. For almost every child, the love of exploration, the excitement of learning something new, the eagerness for new experiences, continues until he or she is about six years old.

The natural learning mechanisms children employ are not much more sophisticated than experimentation, and reflection, with a small amount of instruction thrown in when they are in the mood to listen. They try new things, and when they fail to get what they want, they either try an alternative or are helped out by an adult whom they then attempt to copy. Children learn by trying to do something, by failing, and by being told about or by copying some new behavior that has better results. This perspective is founded on the simple but central insight that children are trying to do something rather than to know something. In other words, they are learning by doing. Doing, and attempting to do, is at the heart of children's natural acquisition of knowledge. They see things they want to play with and learn to grasp. They see places they want to go and learn to walk. They feel the need to communicate and they learn to talk. Learning is driven by the natural need to do. Knowing is driven by doing. Children learn facts about the world because they feel the need to know them, often because these facts will help them do something they want to do. It isn't until school that knowing becomes uncoupled from doing.

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