Maintaining and reinforcing our
inborn need to learn
Anyone can learn
or accomplish anything.
fairly recently it was generally believed that people were genetically
endowed with a certain amount of intelligence and talent at
conception or birth and that this did not change fundamentally during
their lives. It was also thought that brain neurons did not change
after we reached adulthood. However, the sciences of neuroscience and
social psychology started to produce massive evidence that
ideas were not the case.
Instead it turned out that
most people are able to learn
anything they put their mind to learn and accomplish anything they put
their mind to accomplish if they were only willing to put in sufficient
Of course the idea that you
can do or be anything does not account for the many strange things
children might want to do or be that are simply impossible or
completely lacking in ambition.
It should be self evident,
however, that effort and hard work are
necessary to accomplish anything if that thing is to have any worth.
Self belief is important but only in
so far as it motivates us to make an effort and work hard. Similarly
anything can be learned but again only with sufficient effort and hard
It also turned out that our
neurons changed and
grew all the time with each bit of knowledge we gained. People can
learn or accomplish anything given that they have sufficient
to do so and make sufficient effort. The evidence for this is presented
on this site on the neuroscience page, on the self-determination
page and the self-theory page.
being outrageously happy can only be possible if a person is able to
accomplish something truly worthwhile and wonderful and thus requiring
effort and hard work. In a sense it is the amount of
makes any accomplishment worthwhile. After all think of all the things
you can accomplish easily. They are hardly worthwhile doing. It is the
difficulty that gives us the pleasure and happiness we get
accomplishing any task.
There are no
limits to learning or accomplishment.
the vitality of learning in the face of influences that
degrade our ability to learn.
On the home page of this site we set out to answer
- Why certain types of material are ever allowed
to enter the human mind (then requiring removal) and how to prevent
such instances in the first place.
- Why emotional blocks with respect to particular
subject matter occur and how to prevent them occurring.
- Why there is a marked falling off intellectual
enthusiasm, venturesomeness and flexibility as children move up the
academic ladder, how these diminishments occur, and how this vitality
can be maintained.
The answers to these questions are not any great mystery. Some of the
answers are obvious. Others tend to be
shunned and overlooked because they conflict with the conventional
structure and function of society, especially
in the institution of education. These answers, nevertheless, are
possible to implement and bring true promise for
Three Questions. Three
Firstly, we should not have to unlearn
so much and with such difficulty.
Learning by its very nature demands change. We can not be sure that
what we are putting in children's
minds is true, and even if it is true today, it may not be true
tomorrow. Science for instance, is composed of theories not facts, and
these theories are constantly being changed, modified and improved as
scientists try to push closer and closer to truth. This is true of all
subjects, even grammar is just a set of conventions that are currently
accepted by a large cross section of society. Taste and what is
considered correct behavior is also not immutable.
"Facts are generally over esteemed. For
most practical purposes, a thing is what men think it is. When they
judged the earth flat, it was flat. As long as men thought slavery
tolerable, tolerable it was. We live down here among shadows, shadows
among shadows." John Updike
The first way we can help children have less to
unlearn and make it easier to unlearn, is to make this information
A certain section of the teaching community has
always presented material to be learned as if it was the word of God,
and thus, not to be questioned. This approach is incorrect and doing a
great disservice to children; that of requiring them to unlearn the
material thus absorbed. The teachers who present subject material as if
it is theory (which it is) allow the material to be learned without
needing to be unlearned to any great extent at a later date. Newer
theories are simply a
better fit in the child's map of reality. The previous theories far
from needing to be entirely unlearned, remain another way of
is less accurate, or at the very least a historical view which helps us
understand how people used to think. This style of presentation will
itself eliminate most of the need for unlearning. The small amount that
it cannot account for, Ausubel himself has provided us with the answer.
Rote or Non meaningful Learning. Non meaningful
learning, because it is not embedded into the personal map of reality
with thousands of links, has little connection with reality or any of
the things that we know or understand. It can easily be wrong, and
though it has little meaning, it can interfere with the learning of new
meaningful material, making it necessary for it to be unlearned.
Advertising uses the drill method. Advertising is putting some messages
in our minds that we would prefer not to have there, and which act on
us unconsciously, and so cause us to act involuntarily. While this
probably fairly harmless, using the same method for propaganda is
clearly harmful for it changes our beliefs without our permission. In
Postman and Weingartner are critical of schools that present facts,
formulas and theories without the context of some connection with
reality, as follows:
"Most people recognize that
the schools have traditionally regarded the accumulation of facts, even
in the absence of purposeful context, as a wholly worthwhile goal in
itself. Accordingly, our educational methodology is largely designed to
distribute facts as efficiently as is humanly (or mechanically)
possible, with the result that our classrooms quite often assume
something of the atmosphere of a rigged quiz show. The students are
supplied with advance information, given a few days to memorize it, and
are then required to feed it back when they are properly cued. It is an
that says to a student: You do not need to know how knowledge is
generated - what skill, attitudes, and methods are needed to produce
knowledge. You only need memorize what others have already discovered
through their inquiries. If
you can learn to restate an arbitrarily determined portion of what they
have said, you have done enough."
"Every teacher who conducts
classes in this way has had the experience of loudly articulated
student dismay at the prospect of being questioned during the second
marking period about 'knowledge acquired' during the first marking
period. Such an attempt is regarded as grossly unjust, since all of the
students (and most of the teachers) feel it is unreasonable to expect
anyone to recall anything 'learned' in this way beyond the last
meaningful learning. We may speculate that cramming,
drills, rote or non meaningful learning
may also interfere with new learning even when it is currently correct.
It may have to be unlearned before it can be relearned. John Holt in
his book *"How
Children Fail" explains how meaningful and non meaningful
"A child who has really learned
something can use it, and does use it. It is connected with reality in
his mind, and therefore he can make connections between it and reality
when the chance comes.
A piece of unreal learning has no hooks on it; it can't be attached to
anything, it is of no use to the learner."
The essential theme from Holt's work is that learned material must be
meaningful to the learner. The meaning of an idea, and therefore the
understanding of that idea, comes about because of the links and
connections to the idea in the learner's brain. These links not only
give meaning, but they also provide pathways through which information,
ideas, concepts, conjectures, and theories may be reached and thus
recalled. Information not learned in this way remains peripheral with
often no more than one or two connections to the rest of the map of
reality. Studies in neuroscience provide considerable verification for
the idea that links are the essential element in memory structure. In
Creative Brain" Nancy C. Andreasen has this to say about
short term and long term memory:
"The preservation of memories over
the short term occurs because existing synapses are strengthened.
Long-term memory storage must be produced by the creation of new
synapses and even enlargement of the dendritic arbor."
From this we may deduce, that what rote or drill do in effect is
attempt to retain these bits of information by metaphorically widening
the pathways of the links or connections, (further strengthening
existing synapses) between them and some important key activator. They
would do it by going down these pathways many times.
What seems to happen is that much of the information the mind is
exposed to in this way, never seems to enter what is called long term
memory at all. It seems rather that we keep it alive in short term
memory by continually revisiting it. Therefore teachers should avoid
using drills and any form of repeated or rote learning.
Cramming is essentially the same as rote
learning. Although the material used in cramming has intrinsic meaning,
it is a process of forcing it into the mind in a way that renders it
non meaningful for that mind. Cramming is a way of regurgitating
information without having really learned it.
Consequently, studying for exams by going over and over material, as in
cramming, should be avoided if we are to greatly lower the need for
unnecessary and difficult unlearning.
Secondly, We Should not have to Deal With
Mental Blocks. Any form or style of teaching that make
subject matter so unpalatable is obviously to be avoided at all costs.
As to the subject matter itself, the answer is clearly do not try to
teach anything that the learner does not, for whatever reason, want to
learn. I suspect that parents rather than teachers have much to answer
for here. Parents are often unaware of the terrible pressures that they
put on their children when it comes to learning. When children try to
learn things that they have no interest in or are not adapted to, they
can easily build up great resentment and unpleasant associations. These
can make any subject matter hated so much that eventually the mind will
simply block learning it.
The simple answer then, is to allow learners to learn what they are
interested in, while at the same time trying to interest them in new
Schools must also take some of the blame for
creating in some students mental blocks in particular subjects. Schools
with rules about what should be learned and when, practically force
teachers to teach material that some students will find unpleasant and
cause them to build up unpleasant associations with it. However, this
site holds that
with a few unfortunate exceptions, teachers, are for the most part,
admirable people who believe in passing on the gift of knowledge to the
youth of the world.
If they were to come to believe that all they were
doing was making a subject so unpleasant as to become emotionally
blocked, they would back off and try another approach such as creating
enthusiasm for the subject. Nevertheless,
if teachers could be relieved of having to teach particular subjects or
ideas at particular times, as say, in a set curriculum, mental blocks
could be partially avoided, as has been established time and time
again. The answer is
Thirdly, there should not be any falling
off of intellectual Enthusiasm, Venturesomeness and Flexibility.
Part of the answer to this third question is perhaps not as difficult
to understand as the answer to the other two questions. If we really
ask ourselves why enthusiasm tails off, we will find that we already
know the answer.
The answer is that parents
and teachers and society
such enthusiasm and venturesomeness. The reason they do this
is that such behavior irritates the hell out of parents, teachers and
most adults standing nearby, all of whom just want the kids to stop the
constant questions, the running around and getting into everything,
the taking things apart, the making of noise, the going where they are
not supposed to go. It is all too much.
It violates their control.
adults will even become irrationally angry just because they see or
hear a child having a good time. Is it any wonder then, that children
gradually loose this enthusiasm and willingness to try new things.
Adults are constantly telling them stop that, don't do that or stop
making a noise. What is remarkable, is that it takes as long as it does
to get rid of these qualities which are annoying for adults but
enhancing for children. In her book
"The Creative Brain" Nancy C. Andreasen calls attention to
this in connection with allowing children to become more creative. She
had this to say:
"... being active and exploratory
(getting into trouble) is how a child learns about the world. It is the
most natural thing for the child to do. A child explores because her
brain is directing her to pick up objects and manipulate them, to
examine spatial relationships created by the pots and pans inside the
kitchen cabinets, or to figure out how to stack and unstack canned
goods, to discover the contents of wastepaper baskets, or to examine
the relative textures of toilet paper and towels."
"And how fascinating
it is to watch that roll of toilet paper unroll and fill the bathroom!
All of this can be fairly annoying to the parents who have to do the
mopping up operations. But console yourself. These behaviors don't last
very long, and they are helping the brain of little Clair or little
Owen build concepts such as space, weight, shape and even gravitation
and other mechanical forces. If you are concerned that the exploratory
behavior might be dangerous, simply childproof the house by moving
anything that is potentially dangerous to levels that your child is
unable to reach. And accept the fact that the house may be a bit of a
mess for a few years."
Edward Deci in his book "Why
we Do What We Do" had this to say:
"For young children, learning is a primary
occupation; it is what they do naturally and with considerable
intensity when they are not preoccupied with satisfying their hunger or
dealing with their parents' demands. But one of the most troubling
problems we face in this culture is that as children grow older they
suffer a profound loss. In schools for example, they seem to display so
little of the natural curiosity and excitement about learning that was
patently evident in those very same children when they were three or
four years old."
"What has happened? Why is it that so many of
students are unmotivated, when it could not be more clear that they
were born with a natural desire to learn? It was this disturbing issue
that prompted me to begin studying motivation in an attempt to
understand the interplay of authenticity and the social world. After
all, what could be more authentic than the curiosity and vitality of a
For Edward Deci the answer, after 20 years of
experiments and study, turned out to be the loss of autonomy in
learning, caused by adults trying to direct their learning. John Holt
had intuitively understood part of this in his book
Children Fail" many years earlier:
"But what happens, as we get older,
to this extraordinary capacity for learning and intellectual
growth? What happens is that it is destroyed, and more than by any
other thing, by the process that we misname education - a process that
goes on in most homes and schools. We adults destroy most of the
creative capacity by the things we do to them or the things we make
them do. We destroy the capacity above all by making them afraid,
afraid of not doing what other people want, of not pleasing, of making
mistakes, of failing, of
being wrong. Thus we make them afraid to gamble, afraid to experiment,
afraid to try the difficult and the unknown.
Even when we do not create children's fears, when they come to us with
fears already made and built-in, we use those
fears as handles to manipulate them and get them to do what we want.
Instead of trying to whittle down their fears
we build them up, often to monstrous size. For we like children who are
a little afraid of us, docile, deferential
children, though not of course, if they are so obviously afraid that
they threaten our image of ourselves as kind, lovable people whom there
is no reason to fear. We find ideal the kind of 'good' children who are
just enough afraid
of us to do everything we want, without making us feel that fear of us
is what is making them do it."
"We destroy the disinterested (I do
not mean uninterested) love of learning in children, which is so strong
when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for
petty and contemptible rewards - gold
stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, as on report cards,
or honor roles, or dean's lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys - in short, for
the ignoble satisfaction of feeling they are better than someone else.
We encourage them to feel the end and aim of all that they do in school
is nothing more than to get a good mark on the test, or to impress
someone with what they seem to know. We kill not only curiosity but
their feeling that it is a good thing to be curious, so that by the age
of ten most of them will not ask questions, and will show a good deal
of scorn for the few that do."
"In many ways we break down
children's convictions that things make sense. We do it first of all,
by breaking up life into arbitrary and disconnected hunks of subject
Still further, we cut children off from their own common sense and the
world of reality by requiring them to play with and shove around words
and symbols that have little or no meaning to them. Thus we turn the
vast majority of our students into the kind of people for whom all
symbols are meaningless; who cannot use symbols as a way of learning
about dealing with reality; who cannot understand written instructions;
who, even if they read books, come out knowing no more than when they
went in...but who's mental models of the world remain unchanged and
indeed, impervious to change."
This site holds, with Maria Montessori, that this situation is not
inevitable and that it exists only because of the way we treat
children. She believed, that although young children sometimes acted
like little barbarians, that this was not their natural or preferred
state. This site and Maria share the belief that children do not want
to be rude or upset adults, or for that matter other children. They do
so, because on the one hand, they lack awareness that their actions are
going to upset adults or other children, and on the other because they
lack the social skill in performing actions that would not upset
adults. Montessori believed that as soon as they became aware that
their actions could upset others, they became highly motivated to learn
how not to do this. She made a game of learning these important skills,
and made the children aware of how much this could be appreciated by
others. She challenged children to sit still for long periods of time.
She had them become so quiet that they could hear their names called in
the tiniest whisper. She challenged them to perform very simple tasks
without making any noise. She demonstrated how they could blow their
noses quietly. She taught them how to address various types of people
correctly and politely. She basically allowed them to be curious, to be
willing to try new things, to be in awe of and have enthusiasm for new
things, and yet do it in such a way as it could not possibly offend
adults. Thus her children remained enthusiastic and venturesome in
learning while they remained with her. These ideas are as applicable
today as when she come up with them.
Mental flexibility in children is lost for a
different reason. Children must be flexible because their map of
reality is only partial and incomplete. They must be able to adapt, to
change, and to change their minds, because they expect to be wrong or
only partially right most of the time. However, as children get older
and their map of reality approaches structural completion, it provides
such an ability to predict most instances, that children can get the
erroneous idea that it is infallible. Thus they lose their flexibility,
and with it some of their ability to learn. The solution to this
inflexibility, although not easily acquired, is attainable. The answer
is to expose children as
early as is possible to the idea of the impermanence of knowledge.
Children (and most adults) do not wish to hear this of course, but if
exposed to it consistently, they will find it although initially
unsettling, eventually exhilarating.
The fact that knowledge today is as likely to be
superseded and thus wrong, as was the knowledge of yesterday, is born
out by history. The importance of history (not the political history
that most of us learned at school) but rather the history of knowledge,
cannot be underestimated. Every subject whether "Science", "English",
"Mathematics", "Geography" to name but a few, all have a history as
certain changes were made in them over time as to what was accepted as
being correct. While learning the complete history of all these
subjects might take forever, a small smattering in each subject with
continual reference to more, can play an enormous role in preparing and
thus enabling children to remain flexible throughout their lives. Also,
some subjects especially philosophy, are particularly adept at throwing
us into doubt. This doubt is the most liberating kind of learning and
will also help us to remain flexible.
You may be tempted to think that this only true of
some subjects like science and maths where people make new
discoveries all the time. You may feel that other subjects like history
itself is full of facts that are unchanging, immutable. It is true that
history seems to change very little. But it is not immutable. History
is part of the propaganda of each country, and to that extent, it
varies widely from country to country. Then too, history is subject to
change with changes in political philosophy such as were evident in
Russia with its history of Stalin. History is also subject to fashion
and new historians will grab on to accounts of events that support
their own thesis and are thus interesting to themselves. Their choices
as to what to present as history must always be somewhat arbitrary,
being as they are taken from accounts which are often contradictory and
where people may be lying or exaggerating or indulging in self
aggrandizement. Lastly history does change when new writings or other
discoveries come to light. For instance it was once believed that
ancient Greece had a pure pristine
white aesthetic with its marble temples and statues. It is now believed
that this white was once covered with gaudy paint in blues and golds.
The Wholeness and
Interconnectedness of Learning
The Structure of Subject Matter.
The only way we can successfully avoid all the above pitfalls of why
children's ability to learn tails off is to let children learn what,
when, and where, as they desire. It may be however, that years of
schooling and other fragmented learning, often leave children without
the ability to see how things are connected. Much of school type
learning is like this. The only way to overcome this to try and learn
about the same material in our spare time outside school, and indeed
this exactly what some students who become truly interested in certain
subjects do. For the rest of us, it is usually a matter of going
through the motions without really comprehending. As is usual in
schools, knowledge is broken up into subjects, but if it is not
presented with concrete examples, it is disconnected from the rest of
reality. This fragmentation of knowledge makes learning difficult and
it makes remembering it even more difficult. John Holt in his book
Do I Do Monday?", in a chapter on the wholeness of learning,
takes us on a journey of discovery about mathematics, a subject that
can quickly become disconnected from reality. Yet mathematics is
essential for engineering, managing commerce and generally controlling
reality at a basic level. John Holt explains how he felt he was often
just going through the motions with mathematics and feeling something
was missing. He says in part:
"One point of this that the real
world out there is not divided up by dotted lines into a lot of little
areas marked Physics, Chemistry, History, Language, Mathematics, etc.
In the real world, one thing leads to another, each thing is connected
to every other thing. The whole world can be explored starting from any
place, wherever a child happens to be at the moment. We don't have to
be afraid that a child's natural curiosity will make him a narrow
specialist. Quite the opposite; it will lead him more and more out into
the great oneness of the world and human experience."
"Perhaps I can make more clear what
I mean by wholeness of learning or experience by talking about my own
discovery of mathematics. At school I was always a fairly good math
student. It bored me, but it didn't scare me. With any work at all, I
could get my B. But after many years I knew that although I could do
most of the problems
and proofs and remember the theorems and formulas, I really didn't have
any idea what it was all about. That is, I
didn't see how it related to anything - where it had come from, what it
was for, and what one might ever do with it."
Holt then goes on to explain how he found in his
adult life a series of books, by two people called Leiber, that he
hoped would further his knowledge and somehow make sense of it relating
it back to reality. As he made his way through this series of books he
became more and more uneasy. He found he could understand it up to a
point, but was still missing how to place it in the reality of his
everyday life. Finally he realized that this was what was missing, how
it was to be placed in his own map of reality. Reading a book on Galois
he began to ask himself the following sorts of questions.
"What had led Galois to invent his
theory? What had made it seem worth inventing? Had he been working on a
problem that he and others had not been able to solve. What was the
problem, what had he and others been doing to try to solve it, what had
started him in this direction. As it was presented to me, the Theory of
Groups seemed disconnected from everything, or at least everything I
could imagine. And once Galois had started to work on it, had he made
any false starts, gone down any dead ends? Or did he go strait along
like the Leibers? And then, when he got the
theory worked out, came to where I was at the end of the book, what did
he do with it, how did he use it, where did he go next? Did it help him
with the problem he had been trying to solve, and how?
short, I felt like saying to my patient and
hard working guides the Leibers, 'Thanks for your help, but you haven't
told me anything important, you've left out the best part.'
years later, a former pupil and good friend
of mine, then at
college, was meeting with calculus for the first time. Like many
people, he was having trouble. He had the feeling I had years before of
being able to go through the motions, writing formulas and doing
problems, but without any idea of
what they were all about, seeing them only as a kind of mumbo-jumbo,
meaningless recipes for getting meaningless answers to meaningless
questions. He asked me one day if I would try to make sense of it for
him. I said I would.
began by trying to give him a rough idea of the
problem, philosophical as much as mathematical, that had started man on
his search for the calculus. (What little I knew about
all this I had picked up after I had left school.) So I talked about
the Greeks trying to think about instantaneous motion, described some
of the Paradoxes of Zeno - the arrow, Achilles and the tortoise, etc.
At any instant the arrow
is not moving, since motion is distance covered in time; but then,
since time is made up of a sum of instants, how can motion be possible?
It is easy to say, if a car traveled five miles in ten minutes, its
average speed in that time was thirty miles per hour. But what does it
mean to ask how fast is it going at any instant, and how can we find
friend saw the sharpness of the dilemma. I then
showed how Cartesian or coordinate geometry made it easier to think
about the problem, and prepared the way for men to solve it,
by giving us a way to make a picture or map of something moving at
various rates in space and time. We simply plot a graph of distance
traveled against time. It could then be seen that the average speed
between two points could be seen
as the slope of the line joining them on the graph. From there we could
see that the question: How fast is this object going at a particular
instant?, could be asked as: What is the slope of the curve, or the
tangent of the curve, at the particular point? We had then to find out
what happened to that slope as the interval of time became smaller and
smaller, and indeed what it meant to have something approach zero as a
limit. My friend and I did some arithmetic, some algebra, derived the
general formula for the differential at a point - all stuff he had had
in the course. But now he said, 'So that's it. Why didn't anybody tell
me that? It's so simple when you see what it's about.
What I had done, clumsily enough, was not
to try to hand him a lump of knowledge, which people had already handed
to him and which he could not take hold of, but to take him
on a kind of human journey with people who had first thought about and
discovered these things."
What can we notice about
what John Holt did? Firstly, it is showing the tentativeness of the
search for calculus: The thinking, the problems, that led it to be
invented. To do this he had to delve deeply into the history of
mathematics and calculus, to show the step by step progress in the
development of theories that eventually led to the invention of
calculus. He had reiterated it, adding real meaning by supplying mental
hooks whereby it could be linked to many other subjects. He had shown
how it was linked to tangible problems in the real world and had given
examples of what some of these problems might be. He had in fact, given
calculus a place in his friend's map of reality, and in so doing had
given it a place in his own map of reality. Thus it became part of the
wholeness and interconnectedness of their learning or experience. He
had also avoided many of the pitfalls that adults fall into, which
enable young children to be better at learning than adults. Also, in so
doing, the questions that he had asked about the theory of groups were
answered about calculus. He had made it interesting; interesting
because it connected with reality, interesting because it was useful,
and interesting because it was an adventure involving real people.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he showed how and why it was
done. He pulled the veil away to reveal how and why knowledge comes
into existence, and thus, how other knowledge might come into existence.
Now you may be tempted to say, "But what was wrong
with Holt's original lump of knowledge? Why is all this extra learning
necessary? Surely it's just more work." The answer is this;
every formula, every equation has a history and a reason for its
existence. Each one is a simplification of something difficult, and we
cannot understand the simplification, till we first understand the
difficulty such constructions solve or make easier. Besides, Holt only
had to explain so much because he had to find a place, where his
friend, and probably he himself could connect with reality and begin to
understand the process of calculus. You may then ask, "Do you mean we
should have another separate subject to learn called the history of
mathematics?" The answer is, "no no no." Anyone interested in the
history and evolution of subject matter is advised to follow the
biographies of that subject's greatest and most important contributors.
To get some idea of what this might mean a good stating point is to
"Genius Explained" by Michael J. A. Howe. The history of any
subject is about arriving at the clarity for that subject. It is about
its context of time, place and social morays, about its connection with
reality, and how such history needs to be a part of any explanation or
exploration of those formulas or equations. For without it, the
formulas and equations reduce to mere mumbo-jumbo or magic, for
producing right, but meaningless answers to meaningless questions.
Loss of Creativity in Adults.
Creativity is also much weaker in adults than it is in children. In his
Power of Creative Intelligence" Tony Buzan offers up an
experiment that shows a clear loss of creativity as children get older.
"A disturbing experiment, recently
carried out in Utah, America, investigated the amount of Creative
potential used by people at different ages. To research the
'Development' of Creativity throughout life, kindergarten children,
junior school children, high school and university student and adults
were surveyed to determine the amount of Creative potential used in
tests. The results were traumatic!"
Junior School Children
High School/University Students
Less than 20%
As to why creativity become much weaker as
children turn into adults, the answer follows the same pattern as has
been explained above. In his book Tony Buzan also supplies two very
familiar seeming scenarios that quite adequately explain this gradual
loss of creativity as follows:
"Try to remember back to
when you were four years old in your first school . It is a lovely
autumn day, and your teacher comes into the classroom and announces
enthusiastically that today you are going to do your first lesson in
art. You are very excited, because your mind is full of wonderful
images, and you can't wait to express them on paper, which you have in
abundance, as well as lots of wonderful rainbow-colored pencils and
crayons with witch to create your first masterpiece! The teacher says,
again enthusiastically: 'All right children, are we all ready? I want
you to draw an airplane.' In your mind's eye you can see the airplane
clearly, but the technique for getting it out of your brain and onto
the paper proves to be a little more difficult. So at this stage, what
do you, as a four-year-old, surrounded by your four-year-old friends
each with their paper and colored pencils, naturally do? You will of
course look around to see what the other children are doing. What will
your teacher say to you when he or she observes you looking around?
'Stop looking at other children's work! That's cheating.'
Frustrated you struggle
vainly and disconsolately on, until the time is up. When you have
'finished' your work, you are then allowed to look around. And what do
you see? Better airplanes! In fact, ironically, most children see
better airplanes because they look at the worst parts of their own
drawings, and the best parts of others' drawings. At this stage your
classmates might come around and help you in your realization that
yours is not a masterpiece of which you dreamed, and your Least Best
Friend may say something like: 'That's not very good! It hasn't got any
wings!' The pain and humiliation begin to gather momentum, and budding
shoot of your creativity already starts to wither.
Next comes more pain. For on
the wall of your classroom, for the next two weeks, either is not your
little airplane, and you are condemned by its absence, or (even more
horrifying) is your little airplane, and you have to look at the
blasted thing for two weeks. Its very presence reminds you every day of
your incompetence, failure and non-realization of your fantastic dream.
Sometime afterwards, your
teacher comes into your class and announces: 'Children, we are going to
do art again today. And what does your brain say?
Your brain will decide to
flick pieces of paper or paperclips at the children who did good
drawings, to pass messages to your friends, or watch the wonderful, artistic and creative
world outside the window and daydream. Your brain will not want to do
art. Why? Because it has already proved to itself that it cannot."
Learning to draw is of course a mechanical skill,
and if our hands and eyes work, we can all learn to do it quite
proficiently. It is also not synonymous with creativity. However in our
culture it is normal to think that you are not creative if you cannot
draw well. What has happened in the above scenario is the development
of a mental block against learning drawing. Unfortunately this block
also leads you to believe that you are not creative and leads you away
from practicing or performing any kind of creative activities. Tony
Buzan also provides another scenario for the development of this kind
of creative stifling.
"Once again, imagine a time
when you were a toddler. It is a glorious Spring day, and you are
playing with your friends in a blossom-filled park dotted with
sandpits, swings, climbing-frames and the like, and with people out
walking their dogs, meeting friends and basking in the
beauty of Spring. The sheer beauty and
exhilaration of the environment fills you with joy, and you and your
friends rush about, experimenting with that fantastic musical
instrument you are just beginning to discover: your voice. Each of you
hits notes higher than any opera singer, finding how many ways you can
produce each note, how long you can hold it, how loud you can make it
and how much you can vary it.
In the middle of this
super-operatic symphony of sound, in which the dogs have
enthusiastically joined, your mum and dad, and your friends' moms and
dads, descend upon you and tell you not to shout, not to yell, not to
scream and not to disturb other people. You learn that experimenting
with your voice and exploring its extremes is bad and anti-social. A
little while later you are in your class and are so involved in your
work that you spontaneously begin to hum and sing. You are immediately
told to stop it, and be silent while you work. You realize that music
is to be disconnected from art, learning and productivity.
A few years later, with a
growing fear about using your voice other than in the most controlled
manner, you are tested in your music class. Standing in front of your
class, you are subjected to a public examination. With your neck and
throat muscles tensed, and your mouth dry from fear, you are asked to
repeat a note played on the piano. You rasp an approximation. It is
'noted' that your pitch is not good, and that your voice is not up to
the standard of a school choir. As a result, whenever an important
person visits the school, and the entire assembly has to sing the
welcoming songs or hymns, you are told not to make a sound, but just
mouth the words!
Having had your musicality
further restricted and crushed, you one day find yourself in the
sanctuary of the bathroom, and while taking a shower you let loose your
favorite tune or song. From downstairs comes the 'unkindest cut' of
all: the yell: 'Will you please stop making that horrible noise!' You
learn that even those you love are offended by your music."
Anyone can help people to be able to
learn later in life by not damaging them as children. The
answers to our questions are there for anyone who wishes to use them.
Why do children learn better than adults? Why do people have to unlearn
material? Why do people become blocked against learning certain
material. Why is there a marked falling off intellectual enthusiasm,
venturesomeness and flexibility as children get older? The fact is
children do not learn better than adults. Adults have many advantages.
Children simply have the advantage of not yet being damaged by parents,
conventional schooling and general cultural socialization.
Adults may have to unlearn material before they
can learn new material. They have to do this because it has been etched
into their minds as if it were the word of god. If children were not
forced to learn as if everything they were learning were gospel; if it
was not hammered into their minds by repetition; then they would not
have to unlearn it as adults. Thus they could learn better and faster
Adults may find it impossible learn certain
material because they have built up painful associations with such when
they were children. If children were not forced to learn things they
did not want to learn, they would find it easy to learn later in life
when they do want or need to learn.
"What are the conditions of the creative
attitude, of seeing and responding, of being aware and being sensitive
to what one is aware of? First of all, it requires the capacity to be
puzzled. But once they are through the process of education, most
people lose the capacity of wondering of being surprised. They feel
they ought to know everything, and hence it is a sign of ignorance to
be surprised or puzzled about anything." Eric Fromm
Creativity, curiosity, enthusiasm, intellectual
bravery and flexibility all tend to become stifled in most adults, all
of which makes learning slow and difficult for them. If, as children,
these people had not been prevented from indulging in these activities
and punished for indulging in them, as adults their learning abilities
would far outshine children, for they would still be creative,
curious, enthusiastic and intellectually brave. Knowledge, data, ideas,
the stuff that we learn, has to connect with what we know already.
Learning is like sealing the two sides of Velcro. Knowledge when
acquired correctly has thousands of little hooks on it, and our brains
or minds have to catch those hooks in thousands of little loops. We
need to know how knowledge came into existence in order to truly know
it. We need to know where it came from, why was it needed, what it was
for and what it might be used for. Indeed we need to have some practice
in using it. If we could learn like this when we were children, as
adults further learning would follow naturally and easily as we would
really understand and remain intellectually flexible.
"From the moment of birth, when the
stone-age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is
subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and
father have been, and their parents and their parents before them.
These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its
potentialities. This enterprise is on the whole successful." R.
Adults can learn, they usually just don't.
This cartoon makes me laugh, but it is really a very serious question
about the way children view learning and adults. Learning is done in
schools and adults do not go to schools, and yes, most adults do stop
academic learning. The reason that adults often stop academic learning,
is that their experiences with learning at school were so painful, that
whatever pleasure they might have originally gained from learning, has
become crushed under a school history of disinterest, boredom, fear,
humiliation, manipulation and punishment.
is a pleasure but. Yes. Learning is rewarded by an intrinsic
mechanism in our brains and bodies. But this is true only when one is
not controlled or manipulated into doing it. If we learn because we are
interested then yes, it is a joy to learn.
Information and knowledge. This
site is all about the importance of learning. That said however, it
must be understood that the learning talked about here is not just
about the taking in of information. In fact, knowledge as presented
here is not just information at all. Knowledge is information that
connects with our internal model of reality. It is that which is
meaningful because of its inner connectivity and how it connects in
many places when it is added to our inner model. More importantly, it
is that which corrects and replaces our inner models, enabling those
models to grow and become truer models, better templates, and more
efficient maps of the universe about us.
Information addiction. But
there is a problem. Our brains are not just producers of intrinsic
enjoyment that comes from actively learning. Our brains produce a
pleasurable experience whenever we are exposed to information of any
sort. This pleasure derived even from fragmented information is like
that provided by an addiction. It requires no effort but the thrill
from it lessens with time requiring ever greater amounts of information
to produce the same high. But we needn't worry that we might become
strung out, unable to get our fix of information. The fact is, the
media in modern society constantly bombards us with useless and
unconnected and not comprehended information, all the time. The more we
just sit there passively, just soaking up this information and the
pleasure it provides, the more we want to. This desire for
unchallenging, un-useful information fits well with the passive nature
we derive from our experience at school. It must somehow be overcome.
But the easiest way to overcome it, is to never become addicted. If we
can feel the pleasure, that comes with challenge, understanding and
meaningful learning, when we are children, this addiction will never
influences. In an world where there were no external
influences only our belief in ourselves would affect whether we learned
new things and accomplished thing in the world. With each lesson
learned we would not only reach a higher state of knowing but we would
also increase our potential to know even more. However, society,
schools and even our friends and family often seem to cripple our belief
in our ability to learn and accomplish things in the world. As
explained above we are beset by external influences.
blockage. External influences can cause us to build up
such unpleasant associations with particular types of subject mater.
Society, schools, employers, even our friends and family can (often by
forcing us to learn) build up in us such unpleasant associates with
specific subject matter that not only do we have no desire to learn it,
we actively avoid it as we we find it unpleasant to even think about it.
We have become blocked from being able to learn those areas of
knowledge. We hate and avoid these areas of knowledge.
blockage of unlearning and unnecessary unlearning.
Most learning requires some unlearning in that any new knowledge is
actually an update of knowledge we have already stored away. However,
external influences tend to cause us to learn things that are already
known to be wrong. This makes necessary a lot unlearning that
should never have been necessary at all. On top of that society,
schools, employers, even our friends and family often
cause us to learn many things in such a dogmatic fashion that it makes
the unlearning of that knowledge very difficult. It could be said that
we are often taught in such a way as to make us rigid and inflexible in
our beliefs. This blocks us from being able to unlearn old outdated
knowledge and replace it with new better updated knowledge.
schools, employers, even our friends and family can
cause us to loose interest in subject matter that we were once
interested in. External influences cause us to give up on learning
certain types of knowledge. Society,
schools, employers, even our friends and family by their lack of faith
in our ability to learn certain subjects or succeed in them lead us to
give up on subjects without even trying to see if we are interested in
them. Society, schools, employers,
even our friends and family often dissuade us from building on new
interests because the see them as unimportant or a distraction from
subject they consider important. This all tends to make us
timid and lacking in venturesomeness in our learning. This causes our
learning to shrink in an ever decreasing spiral. In a worst case
scenario this can shrink to such a degree that no new learning can occur.
blocked learning. To overcome these external influences we
need to reshape society, schools, employers and familys in such a way
that they make all learning experiences pleasurable. This is not
difficult as learning is naturally pleasurable. In the end it is just a
matter of avoiding the build up of unpleasant experiences in learning
blocked and unnecessary unlearning. To overcome these
external influences we need to reshape society, schools, employers and
familys so that outdated material is replaced with updated material
before learners are ever exposed to it. Also the subject matter should
be taught in such a way as to make clear that the knowledge is
theoretical and tentative in nature thus allowing it to be easily
replaced by updates as they occur and making unlearning where necessary
easy to perform.
degraded interest and curiosity. To overcome these
external influences we need to reshape society, schools, employers and
familys so that we never lose interest in subjects we are interested in.
Similarly we should never be dissuaded from learning any
subject as there is no subject we cannot learn. Institutions and people
must be made to see that they are not helping us by deterring us from
learning a subject. It is never in our interest to believe that there is
some subject we should not learn or that we are incapable of learning.
Finally we should extricate ourselves from environments that tend to
reinforce the idea that there are things we should not or cannot learn
Instead we should seek to place ourselves in environments that help
consolidate the idea that we or anyone can learn anything if we put in
sufficient time and effort.
to love learning and learning anyone can learn anything.
do some people seem so much more capable than others?
anybody can learn anything why is it that some people seem to learn
fast while others seem to learn so slowly that they are often credited
as not learning at all? This is a good question and it has two answers.
one structure. What a person is capable of learning is
dependent on what that person has previously learned. This in turn
affects the speed at which they can learn. A person who knows little
about a subject needs to first learn the underpinnings or foundations
of the subject before he/she can understand any new material. On the
other hand a person who knows a lot about a subject is already familiar
with its foundations and any other structures in the subject necessary
to support the new information and make understandable that new
material. A person who
knows little about a subject may need to learn twice or three times the
material in order to understand new material. Also often that extra
supporting material is not being taught and must be researched by
the learner. The person who knows little about a subject not only has
much more to learn, but is also in a position where it is difficult to
learn the extra material that needs to be learned.
two belief. The second reason that some people seem to
learn slowly while others seem to learn fast is to do with what each
learner believes about learning and whether or not they believe they
are capable of learning specific material or subject matters. Also what
each person believes about their ability to learn specific
subjects is in turn dependent on outside influences. What each person
believes about their own ability to learn specific subjects depends on
what the society in which they live impresses on them. It also depends
on what their schools and teachers convey to them. It depends on what
their employers, their friends, and their families assume and impart to
them. Indeed their beliefs are shaped by any who come in contact
with them, some to a greater degree and some to a lesser degree. This
all affects both what they can learn and the speed at which they can
the differently enabled limited? What
about the differently
enabled? It may seem obvious that we are all conceived or born
unequal. Many people are born with deficiencies. They may be born blind
or deaf or their brains may still be missing important brain
functionality. Even if people are born perfect they may lose their
sight or hearing or even part of their brain. But even those people
are not limited in what they can learn or accomplish. It may take them
longer, or they might have to work harder, but they will be able to
whatever they set their mind to. Of course some people are so badly
damaged they they cannot recover. They may have to work so long and
hard that they become discouraged and just give up. These are so very
few and almost none of
them have no alternative but to give up. What limits most of these
people and indeed all people is their own belief in their ability to
learn and what others
around them believe they can learn and accomplish. In other words in
the end is is there own decisions to continue to struggle or to give up
on learning something that decides whether they will learn it or not.
There are of course exceptions but ones that are only limited by the
current state of technology. It may seem obvious that you cannot learn
to run if you have no legs but the future may bring prosthetic legs or
the ability to grow new legs. People paint that cannot see and compose
music that they cannot hear. If the differently enabled can do all that
the average person must be able to learn or accomplish anything.
geniuses, or so called gifted people. Prodigies,
geniuses, or so called gifted people are essentially an illusion based
on false beliefs that some people come into the world with a gift or
talent that gives them an enormous advantage in life and that the rest
of us have to be content with the little we are given and not try catch
up to or surpass the these talented or gifted individuals. This is not
only not true but it is dangerously untrue. People come into this life
knowing nothing. Infant learning seems so miraculous because of where
they start. It also explains why humans are so much more malleable the
younger they are.
Prodigies may come into the world with some slight advantage but their
ability to learn is normally no greater than anyone else's. They simply
early, and the more they learn the more they find they can learn. Each
prodigy knows more than others of a similar age group, in a few subject
areas. It is this knowledge that gives them an advantage in that the
more they know the more they believe they can know.
knowledge early in life. It might seem strange that many
young people can acquire this early knowledge in various subjects there
are several reasons why this tends to happen. The simplest reason is
that some children grow up in very stimulating environments. They might
grow up surrounded by books or surrounded by parents and other family
members who love learning and contently discuss academic subjects and
other interesting things. Some children are simply curious and driven
to learn as they become interested in various subjects. Then too some
parents actively push their children to learn early in various fields.
This is often the case with chess prodigies, music prodigies and dance
prodigies. But perhaps the most important way prodigies can be produced
is for them to grow up in an environment where they are never told that
there is something they cannot or should not learn. An environment
where they are repeatedly confronted with the idea that they or anyone
can learn anything given sufficient time, effort and hard work.
advantage versus burn out.
out. This seeming initial advantage of so called prodigies
does not mean they cannot be caught up to or surpassed, and indeed they
often are surpassed by more average young people, because many
so called prodigies burn out. They burn out because they are as prone
to being influenced by others false beliefs as are the rest of us. It
might seem counter intuitive that telling someone that they are smart
could contribute to there eventual burn out but this happens and
happens in a dramatic way when we tell young people they are super
smart, super talented, gifted young people. It can cause them to suffer
from impostor syndrome where they are pretending to be smart. They can
become obsessed with how others view them as being smart and how smart
they are believed to be. This can lead them
to avoid situations where they could be exposed as performing badly. It
can lead them to think that effort and working hard is for people who
are not smart and that they as smart people should never make much
effort or work hard. All this leads to a gradual decline in learning
which can lead to slower learners catching up to them and surpassing
out is not inevitable. Burn out usually happens later in
life but it happens because of what the person learned early in life.
Having an advantage early in life can provide the illusion that people
who have such advantages are somehow better, do not need to work as
hard and in fact should not work hard because it would expose that they
are not so clever at all. This leads to such people not working hard
till they finally fall behind. They are surpassed by people that do
work hard. They burn out because they finally realize they are not
superior. Because they have never built up the habit of working hard
they cannot overcome obstacles that fall in their path. On the
other hand people who have built up the habit of working hard do it
easily overcoming each obstacle that falls in their path.
can learn anything. What infants and children need to
early as possible is that anything can be learned if only they put in
enough effort. Yes anyone can learn anything but at a cost and that
cost is effort and hard work. For many people this may provide a
problem as they may not be naturally motivated to learn. As discussed
above they may be motivated to try and appear to be intelligent rather
that being motivated out of curiosity and interest.
we need to learn to avoid burn out.
This can be be accomplished in two ways:
By making sure that learners are exposed to an
environment that encourages them and confronts them with the idea that
they can learn
anything if they are willing to put in the work or effort. More
information on this is available on this
page here and self-theories
By getting out of the way and largely allowing
learners to have as much say as possible in determining what they will
learn. More information on this is
available on this site's self-determination
All learning can be fun. The
other thing infants and children need to learn as early as possible is
that learning is pleasurable and fun. Of course we all do learn this
naturally but many forces in society tend to crush natural curiosity
and stifle initial interest before it can flower into a strong
intrinsic motivation. Parents, often crush curiosity and initial
interest because they believe it is taking children's attention from
other material that they believe the child should learn instead.
Similarly the institutions of learning, teachers, friends, pears and
employers are all often guilty of crushing curiosity and
One way to deal with this is, where ever we can, we should do the
opposite. We should encourage curiosity and act as midwifes to
burgeoning and fragile interests.
we need to learn that makes learning fun.
This can be be accomplished in two ways:
By getting out of the way so children can follow
their own interests. More information on this is available on this
site's curiosity page here and fragile page here.
By presenting material in such a way as to make it
interesting. More information on this is
available on this site's contagion
Learning and accomplishment are the feelings that create in us
intrinsic motivation. But they are only exist in so far as what we
learn is challenging or difficult to learn or accomplish. The things
that we learn or accomplish easily, give us little pleasure. When
are hard, when they are difficult or challenging and we learn them or
accomplish them, then we feel the immense pleasure
that comes from overcoming challenges and having done something that was
incredibly difficult to do. We mainline the pure
intrinsic desire to learn or
If it was
possible to somehow avoid losing intellectual enthusiasm,
venturesomeness and flexibility; If it was possible to avoid having to
unlearn data; If it was possible to avoid building up mental blocks; if
it was possible to come to prefer the pleasure of active engagement in
learning and avoid the sedentary pleasure of amassing useless bits of
information; then we would all have a chance to become lifelong
learners. We could all become people who remain interested, and
continually become interested in more and new forms of learning
throughout our lives.
While it is not completely possible to accomplish
all of the above it is certainly possible to to avoid many of the
pitfalls that often ensure that intellectual enthusiasm,
venturesomeness, and flexibility are crushed in our early
lives. This is possible. If we could manage to
retain these qualities it would lead
to world where most people are able to become life long
It is also possible that if society, schools,
employers, friends and family could be reshaped to promote young
people's belief that they can learn anything given sufficient time and
effort, then these young people would come to believe themselves that
they can learn anything. If most young people became convinced that
they could learn anything they could not help but become life long
"I hope that each and every one of you
remembers Galileo. Not necessarily his lectures, but his lessons and
life. For as grand as all of Galileo's discoveries and contributions
were, I think his example - what motivated him to live his life the way
he did - was really quite simple. He was committed to lifelong
learning." Daniel S. Golddin former
director of NASA
"Anyone who stops learning is old,
whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The
greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young." Henry