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Children are natural born learners

Last week we suggested changing our metaphor for schools: Instead of seeing schools as factories and students as products on a conveyor belt; we imagined schools as organic farms and students as seeds that thrive and grow.

It strikes me that for this metaphor to be useful we have to ask a BIG QUESTION:

Do children need to be made to learn or will all children learn under the right conditions?

A friend came to see me with her 14 year old son considering a change of schools.

I asked him if something had happened to get him to a point of wanting to jump ship. His answer made me think he was more bored than distressed and that boredom has filtered into all aspects of his interactions and self-image.

He asked about the school my kids attend and I told him about the 7 core values of the school. I talked about things like commitment and respect, quality and learning for life.

His face dropped, “My school’s seven values are study, study, study, study, study, study and study”.

Why was the young friend in my lounge so bored? Was he not interested in learning?

Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall project

Sugata Mitra did a research project in the 1990s. He wanted to test this question: Just how much are children natural learners?

He installed computers in walls in public places and watched how groups of kids from different underprivileged communities responded to it.

In a New Delhi slum, kids who had never seen a computer, had no idea of the web and couldn’t speak English were playing games and recording their own music within hours.

After two months Mitra asked the same kids whether they had learnt anything else. The kids said they had learnt nothing new and they didn't understand anything. When he asked if they’d looked at the content much, they said they looked every day. He couldn’t believe they hadn’t learnt anything. One girl put up her hand to explain “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.”

(Catch Mitra’s TED talk explaining his research here)

Mitra’s experiments show us just what a natural capacity and hunger kids have for learning.

So, if kids are natural learners, shouldn’t my young friend automatically get excited at the prospect of study, study study?

Robinson asks: “If children are such natural learners why do so many of them struggle in school? Why are so many of them bored by the process?”

And that’s the question we ask this month on Wonderfully Wired too.

If kids are natural learners we need to figure out why so many kids aren’t learning.

My heart aches for the kids who often look at their peers and think, ‘They all seem to get this easily, I must be the problem’.

“I believe all kids are good learners. But they may not learn in the traditional way.”

says Heather Wells, my guest on the Wonderfully Wired Podcast this month. She believes that if a child learns in one way and we teach them in another we are putting that child at a disadvantage.

There is an urgent need for education to become personal and organic, with allowances for flexibility as we discover the different conditions under which diverse learners learn.

More like a farm and less like a factory.

Ken Robinson explains that personalising education is urgently needed and what it requires is:

  • Realising that intelligence is diverse

  • Helping students pursue individual interests and strengths

  • Allowing for different rates at which students learn

  • Assessing students in their personal progress and achievement

If we believe Ken Robinson, and Heather Wells, and every other guest I’ve had on the show then Education is long overdue a revolution. 30% of our classrooms are made up of Wonderfully Wired children who learn and think in non-traditional ways. But change won’t just benefit the Wonderfully Wired minority but all kids.

Kids do well if they can. But for some reason, Wonderfully Wired kids just can’t and won’t comply. They are just too different to fit the mould.

What if the real gift of the Wonderfully Wired child to society is that he cannot fall in line and cannot fake it?

It’s like Heather says “Special Needs departments, and learning support, and all of those things…are fantastic steps along the way. But it's not a solution… It’s opened an entire can of worms for the education system to say, what we're doing isn't working. These programmes are growing and growing and growing, because we need to meet the needs of these individual children. But these numbers of children are just beyond what we can cope with within the current system. So I think one of the things that I'm advocating is, why have we still got the current system?”

It’s just not working anymore to put kids in special programmes and alternative schools. There are just so many more kids that don’t fit the factory line. They are individual, quirky, intelligent, misunderstood. You know: human. Much more like seeds in the soil than products on an assembly line.

And so, mind you, are all the kids who can manage to conform and produce results. They too have human needs, brains and bodies, preferences in learning and passions and interests.

Are we finally ready to ask: why keep the factory at all?

Next week I write for teachers, keen to see all children in a different way and bring the needed change to their classrooms.


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