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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Learning is painful, individualistic and idiosyncratic

There is a huge difference between learning and teaching. To understand learning, one has to see it. But how can one see learning when learning happens in the head. So here is a chance to see learning 'happen'. See this video tape of live-learning of a young toddler, which will help us peep into the mind of a learner. 

After seeing this video ( of the child we shall call Adi), you will appreciate three characteristics of learning:

1. Learning is painful

We assume that learning is joy and fun. But contrary to this understanding, learning is painful. We watch this everyday in a Montessori. When a child is 'learning' something real, his face is taut and tense. When he cannot solve a problem, like Adi in the above video, the child is frustrated and often throws the 'items'. Sometimes the child yells and even beats someone closer to her.

Sometimes the pain of learning is seen differently. For instance, when the child works on something where he is learning, like Adi, the effort of learning is so high that he wants rest after doing the activity. Or if we praise 'right' outcome in activities, we have observed that the child avoids taking challenging activities later because he is more worried about performing poorly. 'Praising child for right performance' hampers the child learning. Carol Dweck has documented the effects of performance-anxiety and learning extensively.  Montessori therefore avoids praise.

As the child grows, he or she cannot show this pain easily to others. Instead of showing his frustration of learning, he shows it in more acceptable ways of defiance or disengagement. Without helping the child to assimilate the pain of learning, the child does not learn.

2. Learning is individualistic

Even if the classroom is full of students, every student learns at a different pace. If you see Adi's video above, one can imagine many different ways in which Adi could have been helped to finish the cylinder rods successfully and that too in lesser time. But would our help facilitate Adi's 'learning'? Help, at a wrong time in a wrong way, hampers learning.

In my working in a Montessori, I have realised that the 'right' timing of help is very very tricky. After many such attempts, I have discovered that Montessori's policy of 'not helping' is a better policy. As the child grows old, the policy of 'helping only when asked' is perhaps a better policy to facilitate learning. ( But that too requires planning by the teachers!) Helping a child definitely helps learning, but doing it without hurting the child's self-confidence is a bigger challenge. Help from other children is more effective than help from older adults for the child. And that is why, multi-age classrooms like that of Montessori are more helpful.

Homework system has got maligned in the education system. But due to homework, help from other sources is available to the child. In other words, if the parents can help the child do the homework with the right spirit, it actually helps the child get the right help before it is too late.

3. Learning is idiosyncratic

'Idiosyncrasy' means that learning can happen anytime anywhere. What is Adi learning while putting cylinders in the blocks? He is learning about the physical properties of length and diameters through his senses. He can learn the same 'properties' even when he is working with pink tower? Or trying to put screw in the right hole? Or when he is trying to put his legs in the right shoe? His learning of 'properties' can get 'completed' in any of this instances. Once the child 'sees' the problems, he uses other situations to connect with it. That is why even when the child fails in producing the right outcome, it does not matter.

In our normal coercive learning systems of schools, we always insist only on one 'right way' of learning. We do not help the child in connecting one 'learning problem' with other. When we are teaching latitude/longitude in Geography, for instance, we do not help him connect the same problem with 'Geometry'. Or we do not help him understand the concept of 'light' by showing how India has daylight when USA has night? When using arithmetic operations, you will observe some children struggling with subtraction and addition because of the difficulty in carrying forward 'the tens' in the decimal system. But the same child can easily calculate the amount of money he has to take from the vendor when he is buying toys. In short, Interconnections of concepts across subjects is a major source of learning that we miss in normal schools.

Here parents can immensely help their children. Life is interconnected; subjects in the schools are not. Parents can help their children learn if they can help the child interconnect the concepts in different subjects like geography to water management. Or demonstrate the relevance of concept in real life such as by showing how a bell works. Real-life demonstration like taking child to a real factory also helps.


Montessori method works because the environment is designed to be 'learning-friendly'. Right from the scientific kits to the method of teaching, everything is designed to help the child tackle the above learning difficulties. Every child is taught individually. That helps the child chose his own pace and convenience. When the child is stuck he learns from others while 'observing' others in the multi-age classroom, because the child can sit and 'do nothing' in Montessori . Because the child is not praised for right outcomes, the child is not afraid of poor performance.

And more importantly, the child is helped to connect his learning with day-to-day life in a continuous manner. For instance, the child connects 2D images of cards with 3D objects all the time. See this example of introducing vegetables with cards.

By laying proper foundation of learning-enabled child, child is helped for his life. It helps him use these practices of learning throughout his life even the external environment is less friendly.

Courtesy and copyright of video: Sapience Montessori House of Children 

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