How Humans Learn

A great, inspiring teacher is crucial-- but all learning is sourced in the engagement and interest of the student. This is true in any subject, at any age.

Learning is natural for humans. We do it astonishingly well. From the youngest age, the human mind is roving, curious, persistent, expansive, seemingly limitless in capacity and development.

As a career-long teacher, a refrain I have heard all-too-often in teachers' lounges and faculty meetings is the complaint: "Why don't these kids want to learn?!" I have never believed it. Though I have had my moments of intense frustration and challenge-- teaching Literacy in an inner-city Brooklyn public school, or assisting in Special Education here in Southbury, is no job for the naively optimistic-- I continue to resist labelling student apathy or lack of curiosity and natural, intrinsic love of learning as the cause of difficulties "getting through to" students. Even in the most seemingly "reluctant learners" (a real term), the capacity for curiosity, engagement and interest-- for authentic learning-- exists and thrives.

How can we get through to all students, inspiring and drawing-out their most critical thinking, their motivation and innately human love of learning? Where has conventional, standardized education gone wrong in tapping-into students' potentially-bottomless well of self-initiated, authentic learning, and as-such their greatest personal potential? Is it really Learning which "reluctant learners" are resisting? Is the love of learning, or even the mere ability to learn, like a tap which the student (or inspiring, excellent teacher) can turn on or off at will? If so, are some students merely opting to keep theirs turned "off"? If so, why?

I don't think students resist learning. I don't think humans of any age resist authentic learning. It is one of the most satisfying, fulfilling, innately human traits. To say a person resists learning is, in my opinion, like saying someone "resists" breathing.

What are some students resisting, then?  Might there be a better way to help these students, as well as less apparently resistant students, to learn, to engage, to be the best and most self-motivated learners possible, so as to reach their greatest potential, and contribute the most to the future?

As much as all humans love to learn, and are perfectly equipped to learn vast amounts-- most humans resist being "standardized."  Most, especially teenagers, resist being told what to do, by when, "because I said so."  Many students appear apathetic, and seem to resist "learning," when the primary context and nature of their school experience is one of being told where to be, when, what to learn-- much of it merely memorization and making correct "multiple choice" and "true/ false" or "short answer" selections which have been pre-selected by the makers of tests and textbooks...  This form of thinking doesn't require-- frequently doesn't allow for-- individual, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, or the inherent stimulation and authentic learning involved in grappling with real-world problems, challenges and skills.

We all want our own children to grow up equipped for a bright future.  We want them to be happy, self-confident, intelligent and successful, on whatever terms they define success.  The world they are inheriting is complex, and full of outsized problems which may become even worse before we "hand over" responsibility to their generation.  They will need to be prepared, flexible, compassionate, creative thinkers.  They will need to be leaders.

This 'blog is dedicated to examining the many questions surrounding How Humans Learn-- and how we can best equip our children and future generations for the world they will inherit.  In a world becoming ever-more customized to each individual-- through smart-phone/pad technology, myriad television channels and instant-access music, movies, books, 'blogs, articles, high-tech tools and how-to's for every possible endeavor-- it may be that one important avenue to consider in trying to improve our kids' experience of learning, is to shift our focus less on "standardizing" and "systemizing" their minds and learning experience, and more on "customizing" their learning, allowing students the freedom and an environment which encourages authentic engagement and self-motivation over externally-imposed mandates, expectations and content.

This avenue would require a great deal of trust on the part of parents and teachers.  It would require a revolution in how we think of learning, and how we go about attempting to provide and inspire it in growing generations.  This wouldn't be a revolution in the political or violence-suggestive sense.  It would be a total shift in how we think about How Humans Learn.  I'm ready, and excited to be on this journey.  You're welcome to join-- and bring your beloved, precious, potentially-limitless children along for the ride! 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Zack Lehtinen April 14, 2012 at 12:23 AM
I just re-read this, and though I don't think it does-- I want readers to know that I do not mean to criticize teachers, or particular schools. As I make clear in the Post, and in my Bio-- I have worked in public as well as independent private schools, and currently work at Pomperaug public high school. Individual teachers are hard-working, committed, and many excellent teachers do great work with our kids, not-least here in the Southbury region where we have such high-performing public and private schools. I aim any criticism at the overall orientation and paradigm of mainstream schools throughout our culture. The revolution I discuss, I believe can and must occur from within, as it were, led by individual teachers, administrators and parents finding ways to implement the most effective, engaging, authentic learning paradigms and opportunities, however accomplished-- as well as by individual, independent schools such as Montessori, Waldorf, Sudbury and other unique educational models. Homeschooling families are part of this revolution, and are increasing in number nationwide-- and individual out-of-school learning services have the freedom to pursue unique learning strategies in a mentoring context, free of the constraints of conventional schooling paradigms. Bottom line-- our kids and their future depend upon effective, authentic preparation, by whatever means we can provide for them. I invite all parents to join in the inquiry, not merely content with status quo.
Jessica Haight April 16, 2012 at 07:40 PM
You brought up many interesting points. I completely agree with you. Creativity is what makes human beings so unique, and we all learn differently. I am a graduate of Pomperaug High School, and currently write for the Ridgefield Patch. Great to hear your thoughts and connect with you. ~ Jess
Zack Lehtinen April 17, 2012 at 02:55 AM
Nice to e-meet you, Jessica-- thanks for the supportive words. Keep your eyes out for my next post-- a free preview of the Introduction to my upcoming book, Customized Learning: Putting Students in Charge of Their Own Learning. -Zack


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