- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

I have been observing children and learning for several decades, and in that time I have noticed popular perception is often quite different from observable events. I would like to challenge a few contemporary myths regarding how children learn.

• “Children today aren’t interested in learning.” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Children are — and always have been — voracious learners. However, they learn according to what is around them, and what they see as important or valuable. If getting to the next level of the video game is important, they will make every effort to study and figure out the ways to do so.

• “How can children learn when there’s noise or distractions around?” Believe it or not, there’s a whole section of the brain devoted to differentiating between unnecessary and necessary sensory information. Humans are quite capable of tuning out the background noise. The noise is only a problem if they are not interested in the work.

• “You can’t learn when you’re fidgeting, getting up and moving around or speaking out when someone is lecturing.” When I give a talk, my first request to the audience is to ask me any question at any time, by raising a hand. Also, when I work with children — especially boys, who seem to need to move around — I recruit them to do physical tasks as part of the lesson. Nearly every topic will have ways of using physical action to reinforce learning.

• “Kids learn best in same-age classes.” I have seen no evidence to support this assumption. Age groupings may have some purpose for physical education classes, but in my experience, 5-year-olds can learn with 7-year-olds, or 12-year-olds with 17-year-olds.

• “Instruction must be done according to lesson plans and a pre-set curriculum.” This can be disproved both by the decreasing returns of such methods on students in the traditional schools, and by one’s own life experience. When a child wants to learn a certain thing, he can swallow, absorb and digest enormous quantities of information in very short time frames. I have seen children research and become skilled in highly technical software or hardware, or pick up the guitar and develop amazing proficiency in a few months — because they were passionate about learning something. For the motivated learner, the typical instructional methods are not only creakily slow, but actually can impede the learning process.

• “Children have limited attention spans.” Actually, everyone has a limited attention span for things in which they’re not interested. Children have very long attention spans if they’re interested in something — learning to shoot a basket, perfect a skateboard trick, create a video with friends, and many other areas.

• “Children can’t read big words, or calculate with big numbers.” Let’s face it, once the rules are learned, anyone can sound out any word, and learn the meaning by context and by using a dictionary. And anyone can apply the same rules to the four basic math operations. In fact, I found that it’s best to show them, almost immediately, that whatever you can do with two digits can be done with nine or 13, or any number. Same thing with exponents, or with fractions. Once they understand the principle behind a certain idea, let them see that it will work no matter what the size is. It eliminates a lot of repetitive instruction.

• “Literature must be analyzed and dissected to be understood by children.” This is the most insidious way to make children hate reading that I can imagine. Reading should be like breathing — effortless, invigorating, constant and enjoyable. Answering a list of artificial questions turns it into work. Children love stories, and they are themselves creative. Let them read and let them write. Forget analyzing the author’s intent, or deciphering the theme and literary elements used. It doesn’t make them better or more discerning readers; it makes them allergic to reading.

Putting it simply, children are born learners. It’s up to us, the parents, to provide opportunities to learn positive and empowering things, and to monitor what they are excited about. Learning to work with children’s interests and excitement to supercharge the process of gaining information and mastering skills is an art. It’s important — in life and in education — to observe the real evidence rather than to believe myths that actually may sabotage the learning process.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland.

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