Measuring Learning, Part 2

In Part 1 we discussed how and how much young children learn when allowed to explore it, focusing on the physical "stuff" and their relationship to it - when allowed to explore it.

Next, let’s think about what young children learn about social living in the world successfully - in their view.  Of course they have no idea what success in the world is except, in some way, to become an adult, to survive. Who do they begin learning from?  Whoever is around them.  And whoever is around them meets their criteria for being successful: it is someone who is alive and is actively engaged - in anything.  What do they learn?  As mentioned in Part 1, they learn how adults use objects - tools and materials - from kitchen items to parts of games and toys to computers, telephones, and other high tech and low tech objects. And they also watch and see how "big people" talk and interact with each other.  This is how they learn how to relate to others.

They learn, by responding, how to respond to the people around them by experiencing what happens, meaning: whether they feel safe and accepted, or threatened, and how to increase the former and decrease the latter. And the only way they feel any agency (self-determination) in the outcome is by doing some “things” and not doing other “things.”  What doing those “things” - that is, their responses (aka behavior) mean is determined by what happens, what is said or vocalized, what others do.  Then, learning what to do next: how to move, what facial expressions to make, what is or isn’t allowed and what happens when a boundary for acceptable behavior line is crossed - whether it is a line that has been clearly drawn, unclearly drawn, not distinguished at all, or is now in a different place than it was the last time or times.

They also learn how to read others intentions: what their vocalizations mean, what gestures and expressions mean, again with regard to sensing a threat or not, whether the other is open to engaging in some kind of relational action or not, whether they are close to a boundary line, or whether they have crossed a line. And of course they must cross lines to learn about them and about the impact on, in the earliest years, their relational security, amount of desirable engagement (i.e., play) with a parent, and whether there is a threat or a potential restriction of their self-determination.  They learn that each parent, and any other adult, all have differences in their reactions, and most importantly, learn that what they themselves say or do matters, or doesn’t matter, with regard to what and with whom.  They are learning whom to trust or not, who has reliable or useful information or not. Importantly, they are learning what is "normal," and that becomes their model, their goal - no matter what any other less significant adults - e.g., you, me, their teachers - think about it. And as they experience and practice conforming to their learned survival model, their thoughts, feelings, and actions become wired it: neurons that fire together, wire together. This does not mean they cannot change, but it does mean that no one can make the change, or teach them something to change them. Only they can make the change, and feeling secure and accepted unconditionally allows them to try on new ideas, open up to feeling new feelings, reconsider the meanings of past events, and try on new behaviors. The unconditional love and acceptance is critical, as they will make mistakes frequently as they make attempts to think, feel, and do things differently. A parent or teacher or mentor who understands and can do this consistently is of unimaginable potential worth.  And anyone can learn to do this if they have a mentor who can do it AND knows how and why what they do works - it is transferable if not teachable.

Now back to "measuring learning." How can this kind of learning be measured in school? Note that the social learning for surviving as best he/she can in his/her environment has already happened at home!  So some children will not have to "un"-learn and relearn much in the way of acceptable social skills, while others have much to "un"-learn and replace with new learning, learning and accepting a new model of social behavior, one that may or may not be accepted by the child's home environment. Accepting a new model for survival may seem easy to us socialized adults - but not at all easy for a young child, finding that his/her model no longer works, that how others have responded is no longer familiar, and that what was acceptable is no longer acceptable, and what wasn't acceptable may now - all of sudden - be required. And what will be the impact on this student's relationship with the adults at home? Change is threatening to everyone, but what is it like for a young child whose primary relationship (parent) requires, or may appear to require, significantly different behavior and have different expectations?  If we had designed how to measure something determined by such a diversity of previous experiences, of what relevance is it for any other particular child?

I do not have an answer for this question. I look forward to your thoughtful comments!

As John Holt wisely said many years ago, "learning is a function of the activity of the learner, not the teaching of the teacher," if I remember correctly!