Something happened recently at Clearview, my Sudbury school here in Austin, that stopped me in my tracks: students learning to tell time, on their own, from an analog clock.
Yes, you read that correctly. In a world where ubiquitous, abundant devices display the digital time—where clocks with a big hand, small hand, and second hand are fast becoming as rare as rotary phones—I saw a nine-year-old teaching three peers, all younger, how to decipher the code of this archaic timepiece.
I’ll confess, I almost wanted to laugh. I’ve been mildly frustrated over the years at the number of students who’ll ask me what time it is while standing in plain sight of just such a clock. I’ll look at the wall, tell them, and they’ll go on their way. And here was a handful of kids voluntarily studying this obsolete technology for which I remember completing many exercises in workbooks when I was their age.
What on Earth would possess children to take on such a useless project? Really—no one needs this skill that was so important forty years ago, I was compelled to learn it in school. Like so much of what’s taught in schools, this has been rendered irrelevant within the lifetime of the learners.
Yet this incident is much more than an amusing curiosity or pleasant puzzle. These young people were unintentionally reminding me of what human nature is, what people become when their innate drives are allowed to flourish.
Aside from parents of infants and toddlers, we adults tend to forget just how driven children are to learn, to explore and master their environment. This is a shame, both for their sakes and ours. Our lives are diminished to the degree that we turn a blind eye to the infinite marvels the world offers, things we could joyfully add to our store of knowledge and abilities. Worse, though, because we’ve forgotten the power of curiosity, we believe young people won’t learn the important stuff unless we schedule, teach, and otherwise structure and manipulate their learning process.
Kids are natural learning machines. Far from needing to be motivated (code for “coerced into learning things, now, that experts deem important”), everything they see and experience is a call to learn, a reminder that the world is full of things they don’t yet know and can’t yet do. And oh, how they want to understand and do! They learn because they have reasons—because, for example, reading, writing, and basic math unlock a host of life’s treasures—and they learn for the sheer joy of it.
I’m reminded of another time, at my Colorado Sudbury school, when a student spontaneously asked me a question about Base 2 counting. (You may know this as binary numbers, the mathematical basis for digital computers.) She and I looked up some websites, played around at the chalkboard, and shared observations and questions, working together. Now, I doubt this qualifies as a life-changing experience: it’s not as though spending an hour or less probing the basics of this numerical system will yield any concrete benefits for either of us down the road.
And yet this interaction does underscore an attitude I believe critical to a happy and successful life. When people aren’t afraid of things they don’t currently understand, everything can be a joy to learn. All sorts of things become appealing, and when for example you don’t know about math anxiety, things like binary numbers are simply one more cool-looking puzzle to solve, one more game to play. Curiosity undimmed, you’re open to life in all its rich mystery, more tolerant of things outside your comfort zone.
Children learn to tell time, or count in Base 2—or any of a thousand other things they happen to stumble upon—because it’s one more part of the world to be mastered. If we adults don’t go out of our way to squelch their spirits and clip their wings, children can’t stop hurling themselves at life in order to satisfy their curiosity, to grow into the fully capable beings nature designed them to be. The important and the trivial, the inevitable and the random: I say again, people will devour learning unless and until they learn otherwise.
Those of us in a position to affect children’s learning must study this lesson well. To the extent that we surrender old assumptions about how people learn, the unfounded belief that young people require carefully and externally structured instruction in certain tasks at certain ages—only to that extent will we empower them to achieve their potential. Anything less is, at best, a waste of everyone’s time.