Learning and growing

Having a baby, looking after a baby and caring for a toddler as it grows, are activities in which biological, organic processes are always to the fore. A child won’t learn to sit, or crawl, or walk, or talk according to any schedule which you happen to have decided is convenient or ‘correct’.

Our two crawled at five-and-a-half months, but didn’t sit completely unsupported until a month or so later. I didn’t get a ‘sitting stage’, which, especially with twins, was inconvenient in the extreme. But there wasn’t an awful lot of point in thinking about it (and not a lot of time to do so, either!). They also learned to climb at the same time as cruising: when I found them cruising together along the piano on the keys it was time to move the furniture a little.

I don’t think anybody would have thought to say to me that we should stop them crawling because they hadn’t sat properly yet, or that it was wrong for them to have learned to climb: the assumption was that we would adjust our house accordingly, to create conditions where they could develop safely and as they needed.

When they started part time at our local preschool, I admit that I engaged with the assessment aspect as little as possible. I spoke to the staff a lot, and did my share of volunteer days, which helped with the preschool’s finances but also gave me the best window on the preschool day-to-day that I could have had. The environment was about children as complete little beings – not just developing brains, but developing arms and legs and everything else. At that stage, still, there is no real separation: for instance little ones need support with their potty training, and they’re ready for that at very different times depending on the child. They need to learn how to be a social creature, and this too is about body and mind together. No biting, no shoving: share, be helpful.

When children start school they are still only 4, and it still seems to me to make sense to integrate mind and body in learning, although I have heard, anecdotally, that this is not always the case, and that the child’s mind starts to be the focus at the expense of their wider development.

Why should this be? Our bodies are not machines for carrying our brains around: in fact one could argue that our brains are merely overdeveloped management systems for our bodies. Either view is unhelpful though: we are both body and mind, and on top of that, we are not solitary creatures but social. The moment when children enter school is the moment when their social development is in transition from immediate family to the wider social group, and their bodies and minds are in transition from baby to child.

So why, when we accept without question the fact that a child cannot be forced to learn to crawl or talk, do we then turn the whole thing upside down when it comes to the 3 Rs?

The immediate answer might be that crawling and talking are ‘natural’, but reading, writing and maths are human inventions, that they are, at base, something which we choose to teach our children, not something which they will just naturally do unless they have particular developmental issues.

However, while the specifics of reading, writing and number for each culture and each language can be very different, the underlying processes are the same, and I believe that these are as natural to human beings as walking and talking. Symbolic representation is fundamental to what we are as creatures, and the increasing capacity for this in a child is a natural developmental process.

So some children will start Reception with the potential, the capacity, to make and interpret marks which are symbolic representations of language and of number. Others will not, but it will come later.

This is not to say that a child will just start reading (or multiplying fractions) when it’s ready, but that until it is ready, there’s no point in trying to make it read (or attempt Roman numerals).

This moment of readiness is bound to be different for every child, just as weaning, walking and potty training are different. This is not to say that it is an entirely endogenous process: since learning from our environment is a core human trait as well, a child who has seen lots of symbolic representation is almost bound to ‘get it’ sooner than an otherwise identical child who has not. Technological change changes children’s familiar environments, too: although human culture is impossible without symbolic representation, I do wonder whether for children whose familiar representations always move and interact with each other, but ignore the child (those ‘raised by television’, in other words), the transition to reading static text might be a bigger one.

Of course, while you can’t force a child to want to potty train, you can (and most people do) use all sorts of tricks to make being trained desirable, and feasible. Some people use rewards, others simply make the whole process as easy as possible by having loads of potties around. The aim is to help the child make the connection between using the potty and the comfort of a dry nappy/pants. There is, in fact, a symbolic relationship going on there, in some sense. It’s a lesson in consequences.

So how do you ‘grow’ a reader, or a mathematician?

It’s not usually any good handing a child some books and hoping for the best, any more than you would expect a plant to grow without water and light.

But it’s also no good dumping a whole bucket of water on a seedling, and expecting it to grow faster if you tell it that it’s too short. The plant doesn’t know how it grows, so it can’t change what it does to meet your arbitrary needs. You can help it to grow by understanding its needs and fulfilling them, not by berating it (or the garden centre). A child doesn’t know how it learns, either, so it can’t change unless you help it. If a Reception-age child has ‘failed’ to ‘reach its targets’, whose failure is that, really?

Parents are rarely experts in child development: most are also too busy to follow education debates, so most, by default, will expect teachers to try and do the right thing by their child. Teachers who tell parents that their 4-year-old is ‘bottom of the class’ are, it seems to me, doing something which actually worsens that child’s chances of learning what it needs to. Parents should be concerned if they are being told things like this.

Why do I think this? (Given that I’m not an expert myself, just trying to follow the logic of this to its conclusion)

I think this for various reasons. Firstly, I think it because development is not a linear process, so a linear ranking of 4-year-old children in a class from ‘bottom’ to ‘top’ will require the children’s actual abilities to be misrepresented beyond recognition. The ranking will always derive from a selection of measures, and those measures will always miss some things out.

Secondly, even if all the measures are agreed to be sensible, and even if according to those measures a particular 4-year-old is less developmentally advanced across all measures than all the other children in the class, it is no more appropriate to describe that 4-year-old as ‘bottom’ of the class than it is to describe a late walker as ‘bottom’ of the group in nursery. The child’s neural pathways are still forming, and particular abilities are never going to appear to order. As to being bottom of the class in potty training….well…..

Anyway. It seems to me that parenting, gardening, and teaching (especially of younger children) are closely analogous processes: growth and change are natural processes which can be supported if we are ready at the right time, but which can be stunted or misdirected if we tie ourselves too tightly to an abstract, possibly arbitrary set of expectations.

To say that growth comes naturally is not to say we have no responsibility to shape it. A garden will not flourish if you let it get overgrown: it takes time, and patience, but it also takes respect for the requirements of the plants themselves: they will also rarely grow exactly as you planned, and you will always need to be responsive to the garden as a whole system, from its soil and position to the plants that you choose and the care that you give them.

When economics stole the word ‘growth’ it narrowed the word’s meaning. Growth is not simply about getting bigger, faster, more; it’s about living, developing, adapting and responding. If we want educated, confident, adaptable children we shouldn’t be hothousing them like supermarket lettuces that wilt in a day, but nurturing, pruning and supporting them like apples trees in an orchard that feeds generations.

A child’s mind is a garden for growing, and we need to become better gardeners.

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2 thoughts on “Learning and growing

  1. Lovely to read this – it reminds me so much of what was good in child-centred thinking that was so influential around the time of the Plowden Report. It’s true that there were some problems in progressive education theory, but it would be desperately sad if we lost sight of the values and the respect for children at the heart of it. The garden and growth metaphors were widely criticised, yet you make a strong case for holding on to them.

    In the light of what you say it is particularly depressing to have to point up something in the DfE’s response to our Open Letter of June 28th urging that the phonics check be abandoned. Quote from Dfe:

    “we believe that the check…enables schools to benchmark their pupils’ performance against national standards.” But why would teachers want to do that? If they thought such ‘benchmarking’ terribly important, wouldn’t they need to believe, contrary to what you say here, that development is a linear process, that all children ought to be achieving such and such a cognitive target by a prescribed age, and so on?

    • Thank you! The garden metaphor is about as ancient as it gets, of course – in societies which garden, at least 🙂

      When neuroscience talks about neural ‘pruning’, the links become more than analogy, though. There are potentially fundamental characteristics common to both minds and ecosystems which get lost in a mechanistic or linear approach.

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