“Because it’s there” Learning

Lately, I’ve been studying the periodic table. To make things more interesting, I decided to pore over a 30-square-foot transparent version, mostly from behind.

Actually, I didn’t decide to tackle the periodic table at all, much less a large, backwards version of it. As it happens, this particular chart appears on the shower curtain that came with the apartment I’m renting. Thus I’ve been spending plenty of quality time, up close and personal, with a mirror image of something many people study in school. Why, though, make any effort to memorize this classic chart of chemistry basics? Simple: because it’s there.

It’s not as though I need a distraction from the tedium of showering, and surely I will never need to know any of this information (with the possible exception of the pub trivia in which I regularly indulge). The truth is, I simply love to learn; I’ve never had my innate curiosity quite suppressed by my education or the hassles of adult life. And this brings me to another love of my life, Sudbury schooling.

On more than one occasion at Alpine Valley School, I’ve witnessed students learning binary numbers for no apparent reason other than it randomly came up and they were seized by an intense desire to decipher this curious new (to them) phenomenon. At least one of these times, at least one other student was drawn into the challenge of figuring out how to convert from one number system to another. No one decided they were going to or should learn it, and there’s no apparent need or reason for them to do so. They simply wanted to; it simply happened.

This helps explain one of the key reasons Sudbury schools foster such powerful learning, something I call “rich randomness.” Unlike my conventional teaching career, where the content to which students are exposed is carefully managed, here learning is as random as the course of every atypical day. Also different is the number of things to which Sudbury students are exposed: with every individual devoting their time to things that interest them, we all enjoy a front-row seat to the seemingly limitless range of things human beings find fascinating.

Often Sudbury students don’t even realize that they’re learning, much less what or how—but they are. Take reading, for example. All our students learn to read, but when asked to explain when or how they learned, a great number can’t give a definitive answer. They might mention the incentive of being able to play their favorite game without bugging people to read things for them, or they might point to the various aspects of life at school where the ability to read is an asset. They might describe how, with the free age-mixing of our schools, they wanted to be able to do what their older friends could do. But who could say for sure how or when it happens for most of them?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to spend much of my adult life around people whose love of learning was never infringed upon or who were allowed to recover it. Yet it can be surprisingly difficult to describe what this is like. Most of us are used to such sad realities as math phobia or writer’s block—or stereotypes that certain genders or personalities just can’t do something—and so for many it’s challenging to imagine how the world must appear to a young person who has no stigma attached to certain subjects, no learned helplessness regarding new or difficult things. Immersed in a scaled-down version of real life, Sudbury students represent a potent example of what we could all be like were our innate curiosity and drive to explore and master intact.

At Sudbury schools, curiosity is regarded almost as sacred, albeit in an ordinary, day-to-day way. The resulting cultural norm reminds me somewhat of what in Zen is called Beginner’s Mind, a basic openness to whatever arises, free of prejudice or judgment. How stimulating it is (for us adults as well as the students) to be part of a community that cherishes curiosity! Simply allowing space for the organic randomness of life, there’s so much curiosity among so many people that learning is freed from being a tedious chore or obligation. Rather than something adults push on students like a diet or a workout regimen, learning manifests as a constant eagerness to see what’s next, to play. The world itself is revealed as a source of endless fascination.

In closing, I ask you to consider the more literal or original meaning of the phrase “because it’s there,” the folksy, time-worn response to someone’s asking why another person climbed a mountain. What we’re dealing with here goes way beyond schooling, and indeed springs from the very foundations of human nature. Why do people (especially young people) learn things? Why would they take on a challenge, immerse themselves in something difficult and/or uncertain?

Why? Because it’s there, of course.

Periodic Table

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