Sunday, August 8, 2010

A "Duty" to Learn?

A parent on our local home learning discussion list posted a link to a blog post about learning. The author of the blog calls herself a "PhD in Parenting" (which I find interesting because I think the only way a person could earn that title is if they actually had a bazillion children and never ever once goofed up, but perhaps I set my standards a bit high) and she wrote this:

"These thoughts on the right and duty to learn have a significant influence on my opinion of different education options for our children."

A duty to learn. Here are my thoughts about that:
This is a very thought provoking piece and I certainly appreciate your opinions. I am an educational "expert" and an unschooling mom, and I enjoyed reading it with both hats on (sometimes simultaneously). And I did get hung up a bit on your word choice here: “the right and duty to learn”.

I find it interesting when people think that learning is something other than a natural, innate, biological process. Perhaps you may have meant something different than “learning”. Perhaps you meant that all children have a “right to receive instruction and a duty to attend to it”, because people learn all the time, even adults, without even intending to. No one can *make* another person learn – it’s a completely autonomous process. And learning occurs most successfully (easily, naturally, effortlessly) when we are engaged in an activity or pursuit we find interesting, intriguing and fascinating, while in an environment that feels emotionally safe and supportive (there’s research to back that… and I’m not sure most schools provide that). In a school environment most of what kids are learning are things that adults are not intending them to learn; instead, kids are learning things as a byproduct of that particular milieu that has nothing to do with a “well-rounded education”… and you point these out beautifully in your “cons” section about school (and there are many more things that kids learn, especially negative things about themselves as learners and as people, that are not intended).

So maybe you also meant that adults have “a duty to provide an environment that is supportive of and conducive to learning”?

You refer to Article 28 from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I love that document… and I understand that the reason that education is referred to as compulsory has nothing to do with my decision to homeschool my child (as I have other laws that currently protect my right to do that). It’s about access (for the child) and accountability (for the country and the adults who make decisions on behalf of that child).

I’m a big fan of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educationalist who wrote the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Basically, his premise is that literacy gives us the ability to have political will. His “radical” mandate was to provide people with literacy skills so they could make decisions (and vote) based on information they could read themselves. All children should have access to education for this reason – the ability to self-determine… but not all educational methods or approaches are supportive of real learning (or self-determination).

She responded to me (talking about the "right to learn" as a human rights issue):
I see the right to learn as a human rights issue – i.e. children and adults should be given adequate time, resources, and freedom to be able to pursue learning. I don’t see it as being specific to “instruction”, although I recognize that instruction is the way that most countries choose to provide this basic human right. With regards to the duty to learn, again I don’t see it as a duty to attend instruction. I see it as a duty to learn the things that are required to function as a reasonable human being (i.e. to be able to earn a living, to not act/judge out of ignorance, etc.).
And I wrote back to her:
Just a couple of points:

1. I don’t see the "right to learn” as a human rights issue. I know it’s semantics on one level, but it is also a matter of using clear terminology. Everyone learns, even the oppressed. The “right” is really access to environments that facilitate certain kinds of learning and provide specific types of information. Sorry for nit-picking, but I think it’s an important difference.

2. Duty to learn. Being able to earn a living and having a broad perspective and understanding (thus not acting/judging out of ignorance) are very important, so I certainly agree with you about that. And saying it’s the duty of the learner to learn these things is putting the responsibility in the wrong court. It’s really the responsibility of the adults in a child’s life to ensure that the child has an opportunity to explore many different activities, to treat a child with kindness and empathy (so that a child learns to take the perspective of others), and to allow that child the freedom to develop according to that child’s unique strengths so that the child can find satisfying and successful paths to earning a living down the road. Kids learn so many things through adult modeling that we can find the roots for things like bigotry and intolerance in a child’s environment.

Children who are treated kindly, who are supported and given lots of opportunity to grow and develop (according to their unique developmental timeline and pathway), who are able to see adults engaged in meaningful work and pursuits, and who witness tolerance and understanding in action are likely to incorporate those things into their adult lives. It’s not their duty to learn these things… they will learn them naturally if provided with the right environment in which to learn them. It’s the duty of their caretakers to provide that optimal environment, from my perspective.

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