The transformation of learning into education paralyses man’s poetic ability, his power to endow the world with his personal meaning. Man will wither away just as much if he is deprived of nature, of his own work, or of his deep need to learn what he wants and not what others have planned that he should learn. (“Tools for conviviality”, Ivan Illich)
“Learning” is so intrinsically human that it almost defines us as a species. It is more than the process of acquiring new knowledge. It is a natural, innate propensity for integrating the world, our relationships with others, and our own identity through communication, interaction, and exploration.
You cannot stop a person from learning, except by shutting down their cerebral activity. We are learning constantly, even while we sleep. It is such a natural and automatic process that we are rarely aware of what we are learning.
John Dewey talked about “collateral learning” in the context of schooling, and he was referring to what students learn while they are being taught. He argued that the most important learning was not familiarity with the content, but the development of a love of learning. Process, context and relatedness represent the real life-changing power that teachers and parents can harness to promote the learning of life-critical values and attitudes.
Yet the trend since the industrial revolution has been to redefine learning as a service or even as a commodity that can only be delivered by trained professionals. When parents consider the possibility of reclaiming primary (not sole) responsibility for scaffolding their children’s learning of “the right stuff” (the way it used to be), they often exclaim “oh I could never do that, I’m not smart enough!”, or “I don’t have the time”, or worse yet “I couldn’t stand having my kids around all the time, I’d go nuts! I need some me-time!”.
We have outsourced this most essential of parental and community duties to a faceless, careless and amoral institution: the Education system. In this process we are wantonly sacrificing the most priceless treasure we have: our children’s natural curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.
To force a child to learn English literature while preventing him–directly or through schedule-crowding–from developing his current passion (or even mild interest!) for astronomy is nothing short of a crime against human nature. It forces an all-encompassing and narrow-minded value system onto him. It smothers his fascination for the unknown and stunts his natural development.
In short, in the process of educating the child to prepare him for the “the real world” (which apparently only exists once you leave school!), we ensure that he is almost completely unprepared to change it.
And perhaps that is precisely the intent of the professionalisation of learning.
We must reclaim our roles as exemplars, mentors and guides over our children. We must rebuild our trust in their natural ability to learn. We can use modern technology to assist with this, but we must never do it at the expense of our watchful, respectful and compassionate presence. We must study and come to terms with what the research in learning and motivational psychology has been shouting at us, mostly ignored, for well over four decades. We must then be willing to unlearn false ideas, adjust our values, shift unhelpful paradigms, change bad habits, and realign long-term goals, even when doing so feels like swimming against the current.
We need courage, strength, compassion, and, most of all, we need each other.