I remember our first child, Cassidy, learning to climb up on the couch. John and I were watching TV, and Cass, our only-precious-most-wonderful-smartest-in-the-world first child, climbed up on the couch, slid down and climbed up again, over and over. She was grooving her new knowledge, much like we do when we learn to play the piano, or ride a bike, or learn a language. She was drilling, but she was excited about it, and doing it of her own accord. John and I hadn’t said, “OK Cassidy, it’s time to practice climbing up on the couch.”
I was reminded of that the other day when I watched my granddaughter Peyton practice learning to swim. She has taken lessons at the YMCA for several years, and so has no fear of water, and could get around in the shallow end. But this summer, with visits to swimming pools (and the Aquarium Center, as her cousin Harry calls the Aquatic Center), she has become more adept and more daring.
First this year, she began testing her underwater swimming ability, asking us to count how long she was under. Her mother kept urging her to try to improve her swimming above water, too. Then Peyton discovered jumping and diving.
Watch this! A jump into the shallow end, followed by a chorus of “Never dive into the shallow end of the pool!” from all the adults. So she moved to the deep end, first jumping, then just the other day, she tried a flip. No one showed her how to do it. She just stood at the edge of the pool and did a 360 into the water. It was so successful that she tried it over and over, adults giving her pointers, including to jump out farther so she doesn’t hit her head on the edge by mistake. Then she tried a side flip off the ladder. Finally, her mother said it was time to try “scoop-hand-above-water swimming.” And her swimming is reaching a new level.
I thought about the day at the pool that evening, and reflected on how children learn. They are adventurous. They are intrigued by new skills. They know instinctively that in order to get better at something, they have to drill it, do it over and over.
So why is it that adults — most notably in our schools — find this sort of learning, which is called “rote learning,” so reprehensible? Peyton did not learn to do a flip into the water by first learning and understanding the principles of physics. She didn’t learn them by analyzing the steps — first first curl your toes around the edge of the pool, then bend your knees… She learned it by watching, trying, and then practicing, so that it became automatic. When she takes piano lessons, she will learn to identify notes and practice the scales. Why is this so different from learning the multiplication tables and drilling on them? Or learning the presidents of the United States, or the dates of the Civil War?
Children are programmed to learn. Let’s not unprogram them to conform to some method of learning thought up by people trying to sell text books. When your child returns to school this fall, think about this. Let the child’s natural inclinations lead to love of learning. Don’t let the establishment drain the life out of this natural enthusiasm so that it leads to a hatred of school.