Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Children Can Teach Us About Learning

I am always inspired by the following quote by Thomas Szasz, an American psychiatrist and academic:

"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all."

This quote, very simply, summarizes what children can teach us about learning. Learning involves letting go of our ‘ego’ and the notion that I know it all.

Anybody who has a child and/or has observed children learning knows that children learn at rocket speed! What makes children good learners?

Intuitive - It has been proved that children start learning in the womb. They can recognize their mother's smell and voice much before they are out into this world. They probably learn because they are 'programmed' in a certain way to help themselves. To be safe and secure in the big world, an unborn child learns to identify her mother before she can see her. So, learning comes to children quite naturally and children preserve this intuitiveness or the natural ability to learn.

Curious - The curiosity of a child is unbeatable! They keep throwing questions at you from the minute they start speaking. They want to know everything about everything. At 2 years of age, my daughter's favourite words were, in broken Hindi, 'Je Kya Hai' meaning 'What is this?’ She asked me this question about everything she saw without blinking an eyelid! Even though, not all her questions got her answers, she always wanted to know more. As she grew older, the questions changed from ‘what’ to ‘why’ but they kept on coming! Through the child’s eye, everything is worth exploring and nothing is ordinary.

Enthusiastic - The enthusiasm of children is unquestionable. They have endless energy and passion and this energy transcends every activity they undertake. Children are also spontaneous. They don't plan everything they want to learn. They do not worry about the future and are happy to live enthusiastically in the moment. Children like to think and solve problems and they believe they can solve any problem! They never question their own ability and are always enthusiastic to learn. In a class of 4-year olds, ask who all can paint and see the number of hands that rise. Repeat the same question with a group of 20-year olds and see the difference!

Courageous - Children have a lot of courage and they are not afraid to fail and learn from mistakes. I remember, as a child, I was extremely enthusiastic about learning how to cycle. Countless falls did not deter me from trying yet one more time until I perfected the fine skill of speed and balance. Children always keep trying and never give up. This courage generates self-confidence and helps them become ambitious. Ask any child what they want to grow up to be and pat come fearless responses - astronauts, movie stars, doctors, scientists, artists etc. Their dreams are always big.

Observant - Children are blank slates and they are open to learning from others. They consciously and unconsciously model behaviour that they observe and like. There is a deep intensity with which children observe their role-models. And most learning involves just this deep observation and no formal instructions. When my daughter was 3 years old, she had already learnt how to tie a saree (an Indian 9-yard dress) using my dupatta (a long stole). She would also ensure that she carried a small handbag on her shoulders, wore my mother-in-law's sandals and walked out of the house saying 'Bye. I am going to the office. See you in the evening!’ And I never taught her any of this!

In order to be successful, adults should learn these qualities from children. The world perhaps needs more ‘childish’ learners!

Watch this TED video by child prodigy Adora Svitak. Adora says the world needs "childish" thinking: bold ideas, wild creativity and especially optimism. Kids' big dreams deserve high expectations, she says, starting with grownups' willingness to learn from children as much as to teach.