You cannot force someone to learn. You can threaten them, you can punish them, you can force them to sit still and listen (or pretend to listen), but you cannot force them to learn.
No one can be forced to learn.
Why is it then, that our entire schooling system and the strategies with which most parents raise their children are based on the very premise that children can be forced to learn?
How many of us have not experienced information being forced upon us through threats of punishment?
I am sure most of us remember times when we were children where our parents or other adults tried to force us to learn. We would make a mistake, either innocently or due to doing something we knew we shouldn’t do and they would scold us or even berate us and they would devise punishments to teach us about the consequences of our actions.
What did we learn?
We learned how to hide our mistakes, to pretend like they did not happen and we learned how to lie better to avoid that experience of being scolded, even to ourselves. We learned that when we make mistakes, our parents and other adults gets angry with us, that it is us who are wrong, that there is something wrong with us – not with the actions we took. Very seldom would parents or other adults take the time to actually support us to understand the course of actions that created the mistake in the first place and how to prevent them in the future.
Learning is something that happens on an internal level and no matter how much outside force is exerted, if the person is unwilling or unable to learn, they will not learn. They might be able to copy behaviors or become good at pretending that they’ve learned – but real learning can only happen if the person takes the information in and makes it a part of him or herself.
What does it mean to make information a part of ourselves?
When we make information a part of ourselves, we come to understand it on an intrinsic and internal level, where we integrate it as a part of who we are. We can only do that when we see a purpose with learning that information, when learning that information is relevant to us and the context we are in.
When information is being stuffed down our throats, often without reasonable explanation, how much do we actually learn?
How many of us remember even a fraction of what we learned in school or even in university? Do we not remember much more about the people, the relationships we formed than the knowledge we were supposed to integrate? Why is that?
“Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant.” – Russell Ackoff
We force children to mimic us, to copy behaviors and to parrot the teacher or parent and we call that learning, but what would if we were to apply a different strategy where learning is seen as a self-directed process happening internally within the child, within which the parent or teacher more than anything stands as a facilitator?
Instead of trying to force children to learn information that is important to us, or that we believe to be relevant while they are off learning things because it matters to them (like how to navigate social hierarchies or getting skilled at playing computer games), we can decide to take on a different role in the child’s learning process.
In a real learning environment adults are no longer superior entities whose role it is to enforce authority, but who instead work with and assist the child to navigate, assess, sort and reflect on information, to discover what is meaningful to them.
Real learning requires more than the passive corporation of the child, student or participant – it requires a self-directed will to learn where the information has meaning and purpose to the one who learns it.
If we cannot force a child to learn, we also cannot take responsibility (or credit) for a child’s learning process. What we can do instead is to provide the child with an optimum environment and space for learning where information is available, where there is time and resources to delve into subjects on a deeper and more substantial level. We can assist them to make meaning of what they see, read and hear and help them to contextualize what they see, read and hear to their own lives and the life we collectively share.
There is good news and there is bad news in all of this.
The bad news is that our school systems and most parenting strategies are based on the idea that learning is something that can be forced, that children can (and even should) be intimidated into learning. This means that real learning most often happens outside of school and outside the iron grip of parenting and it means that children (and everyone else) aren’t learning a fraction of what they could be learning.
The good news is that realizing that learning cannot be forced actually gives children a point of power that we seldom realize (or admit) that they have.
This also means that we cannot decide what a child learns and more importantly, we have to admit that we never could.
It also means that there are no leaders or followers in these Hunger Games that we call schooling – and the question we must ask ourselves is whether we even need schools or teachers for that matter, if education was always in the hands of the individual, to decide and direct themselves to either learn or not?