Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Part II: Lessons from Primitive Childhood Education

Anthropologists and geneticists have discovered that all children are born with a powerful love of learning and genetic instincts that prod them to learn how to live successfully in their environment. But we modern humans with our latest education reforms seem to be determined to kill the joy of learning in our children.

  Scientists studied several primitive hunter-gatherer societies where people were organized in small tribes. They found that in all cases children were eager to explore and learn about their environments. Children seemed to learn effortlessly with little fussing or organized instruction by adults. On their own, through play and imitation, children rapidly picked up the tribal language, knowledge of plants, and animals, use of tools and weapons and survival skills which are vital to success of the tribe. The harsh primitive environment of hunter-gatherers require humans to absorb huge volumes of information and skills and to apply amazing creativity and adaptability to survive. Modern humans could learn a lot from primitive peoples about how to educate children to lead happy, successful lives in our society.

According to this study report: "It would be a mistake to assume that because hunter-gatherer cultures were “simpler” than modern cultures, children had less to learn. The hunting-and-gathering way of life was highly knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive, and because of the absence of occupational specialization, each child had to acquire the whole culture, or at least that part of it appropriate to his or her gender."

If you want to get a glimpse of how difficult it is to survive in the woods, by hunting and finding edible plants, without modern shelter and conveniences, just watch any episode of the reality show Naked and Afraid. The modern humans who volunteer for this 21 day ordeal are quickly reduced to starving, trembling, bug bitten, misfits. Modern humans are totally unprepared to live as hunter gatherers because we have not received the extensive training that children who grow up in such societies receive. What are the secrets used by primitive people to teach their children complex living skills and the social rules that allow young people to take their place in tribal life?

Researchers found that in general: “Hunter-gatherers do not give orders to their children; for example, no adult announces bedtime. At night, children remain around adults until they feel tired and fall asleep.… Parakana adults [of Brazil] do not interfere with their children’s lives. They never beat, scold, or behave aggressively with them, physically or verbally, nor do they offer praise or keep track of their development.… Children do not go to parents for help or to complain about one another.… Adults do not give any indication of being worried about the psychological future of their children. Whether or not their children will become effective adults is not an issue” 

Amazingly, researchers found that in all the primitive societies studied, children had natural instincts that guided them to seek knowledge of their surroundings and acquiring skills such as hunting, food gathering, shelter construction, tool crafting, and vital social skills. So an apparent liaise faire education without formal instruction is a system that works very effectively for primitive people. Contrast that to our modern, highly structured schooling of children with its ridged curriculum, constant testing, test prep, and obsessive school accountability ratings.

The authors of the research article on primitive education believe they have found a unique modern day school that has been in operation in the U.S. for over 40 years that successfully applies the self teaching principles found in primitive society. They have studied the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. This private alternative school serves an average of about 180 students each year from kindergarten age though high school. The guiding principle of the school is that children should be given freedom to explore and educate themselves as they choose. It has no curriculum, and no testing, but the school employs well educated adults who provide instruction and guidance as needed. The school is equipped with typical education resources such as books, computers, internet access, and also shops, kitchens, art supplies, tools, sporting equipment and outdoor access for all students. Children interact with each other in mixed age groups and with teachers in a process of self-directed learning. It is reported that the school's graduates go on to college and careers with at least as much success as do students in traditional schools.

Although considering the possible benefits of the Sudbury alternative school above, I do not believe that in modern education that lassie fare eduction would be a panacea.  I believe our present environment for children presents major distractions that would favor caution against a pure lassie fare approach to the rearing and education of our children. We probably have all witnessed children who are either led astray by peer groups or by the addictive nature of social media and electronic gaming. That is in addition to the literal poisoning of both children and adults by the many addictive mind altering drugs that are readily available today. Each of those factors that are not present in primitive society can derail the education of children. Parents and educators must be vigilant in protecting children from those influences in our environment that can distort or destroy the physical and mental development of children.

Unfortunately, our latest reforms to our modern education system have resulted in much student apathy, disfunction, disrespect for teachers, classroom disciplinary issues, and the loss of about one-third of minority students to what some call the school-to-prison pipeline. Our present Common Core curriculum is preparing students for very little of what they will need to know to succeed in real life. Low income students are being systematically cut out of higher education by prohibitive cost, and we are teaching few real life survival skills such as how to stay away from payday lenders and how understand and work with  tools. Instead, we are producing a generation of obese, unhealthy, sedentary, unmotivated youth with a  huge percentage of our population destined for a life of crime and/or dependence on government services. Instead of buying into our intended preparation for high paid STEM careers, many of our students are becoming addicted to drugs and/or obsessive video gaming and societal dropout.

One of the big problems for modern education is that our system separates children from contact with the vital life skills and careers utilized by parents and other adults around them. Most children today never get to see what kind of work their parents do every day to earn money to purchase our food, shelter and leisure  time gadgets. Primitive kids, on the other hand, get to see every day how their mothers and fathers get food, shelter and other necessities. In order to compensate for this experience gap for our children, our education system should be redesigned to expose and immerse children in the real knowledge and skills they will need later in life.

Possibly the best approach to improving education is to create schools that work to capitalize on the instinctive learning drives of children while insuring that learners are exposed to positive adult role models and to those skills that are necessary to success in our modern lives. I would also resist allowing children access to the addictive electronic devices that have sidetracked so many young people today. Parents need to actively monitor and help select a child's peer groups to help prevent damaging distractions from healthy development.

Even though our environment is now very changed, modern schooling should continue to stress adaptability, teamwork and harmony with nature. In order to allow students to experience various careers starting even at the early elementary level, educators should develop cooperative programs with local businesses and industry, hospitals, farms, and service industries to provide regular interaction of students with many adults exemplifying many types of careers and role models. Such adjustments would be more in line with what works very effectively in primitive education. What we are teaching right now is too artificial, separated from reality, and is often totally useless for many children. Unlike primitive societies our modern education system has little contact and connection with real careers.

Education coaches need to work with parents of young children to encourage vital early training even before children get to school. Parents should understand that it is beneficial to the child to involve her/him in as many routine tasks in the home as practicable. Let the child help wash the dishes, housecleaning, mowing the grass, washing the clothes, and helping to cook the food. Such experiences are necessary in life, so why not allow children to experience them as early as possible. It is definitely not doing children a favor to exempt them from doing routine jobs in the home. As children learn to pull their own weight in life, it helps them build self-esteem as well as making life a lot easier. Admiral McCraven, commander of the Navy Seals advised recently in a graduation address: "If you want to change the world start every day by making your bed!" He goes on to extoll the virtues of healthy habits, including the development of simple routines that that keep our lives orderly and productive. How many young people do we all know that never lift a finger around the house? Such lack of basic skills and good habits will certainly haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Well designed pre-school can be valuable for socialization and development of interpersonal skills as well as further allowing children to explore their environment. Swiss educators often hold pre-school classes out-of-doors so that children can be allowed to play and explore nature, plants and animals and develop skills though play. It has been a serious mistake for the proponents of Common Core and our current test prep education to reduce recess time and attempt to structure all schooling as college prep for all. Kids need to burn energy while developing muscles and coordination by mostly unstructured play. And at the same time teachers can get a decent coffee break! If you want to get a look at how important instinctive development is to developing children, just watch the behavior of puppies or kittens as they develop coordination and vital skills by play running and jumping and play fighting.

And what about providing children with a much healthier diet that provides children with real food instead of the calorie laden fast food that many children grow up eating. You don't think proper nutrition has a place in education? Well just look around you at the thousands of teenagers that are so overweight from eating fast food and from lack of exercise that they are already pre-diabetic before getting their first real job. What company wants to hire young people that are obese and unhealthy and will be a drain on the healthcare system before they are thirty? Hunter-gatherer children have virtually no tooth decay (caused by excessive sugar and starch) and grow up lean and healthy even when they have plentiful food. Maybe we need to put our kids under the charge of hunter-gatherers so they can grow up healthy. Much of the explosion in health care expenses today for Americans is caused by poor diet and lack of proper exercise. What about excessive exposure to electronic gadgets and social media?  Many industry leaders in Silicon Valley send their children to private schools that do not allow smart phones and iPads. Maybe these experts in media addiction know something is not natural and healthy about hunching over a smart phone all day. Our culture has created an alternate reality for many children that runs completely contrary to healthy lifestyles.

Obviously our job in preparing our children for life is much more complicated than that of hunter-gathers, and there are apparently powerful distractions that can supersede formal education, but there must be a better, more natural education path than what we are doing. Our current reform practice of attempting to prepare all students in a strictly academic track for college is a losing strategy for many students and is not producing results on the very skills that were targeted. How often do most people use a quadratic equation at home or at work? Do we really need to follow ridgid steps in solving a math problem? Do we really need to analyze the parts of the plot of a story, or should we work instead on encouraging a love of reading in our children? It is time to really reform our dysfunctional education system and adopt methods that align better with our amazing genetic programming for learning to thrive in our environment.