We must reclaim the word “learning.”

To arrive at the top, you had to climb up and through a permanent scaffold of hollow cubes made out of metal pipes. Each cube went up to my waist. The structure was four cubes high, four cubes across, and three cubes deep. Above this were two extra cubes with a view of the whole playground. Standing on this highest perch, while holding on tightly to a crossbar, meant you had run the fastest (or second fastest) out the Kindergarten room door and had woven your way through this monolith to childhood without pausing or slipping. You were the King of the Monkey Bars.

Although Mrs. Locke didn’t note it on my report card, I would have received “U”s for running, climbing, and swinging during recess. I learned these things because they were important to me, I used my whole body, and I practiced them outside at least twice a day. While I was learning them, I developed my confidence, improved my ability to speak and listen, read social cues, problem solved, resolved conflicts, cooperated, dealt with disappointment, empathized, and helped out others.  

Mrs. Locke’s Kindergarten classroom was a large space that had an oval rug for meetings with an upright piano nearby. There were tables and chairs, wooden building blocks, easels with paint in the primary and secondary colors, assorted construction paper, small scissors, plastic jars of uneaten white paste (and some that had been snacked on), oversized crayons, wooden jigsaw puzzles, a water table, a sand table, a fish tank, several displays of picture books, a drinking fountain and sink with a step stool, and a stack of small rectangular rugs for naptime.

From my report card you will see that the emphasis in her class was on social skills, communications skills, art, music, movement, and life skills. No worksheets were passed out. No homework was assigned. No tests were given. I was allowed to learn at my own pace. I was allowed to be me.

This what learning should be for most children. They should be provided with lots of interesting materials, opportunities to explore them, the ability to choose what’s important to them, and uninterrupted time to learn.

Something very different is happening in most public schools today. Look at a recent Kindergarten report card from a School District that’s less than three hours away from where I grew up.

The priorities have changed. Instead of engaging with books for enjoyment, children are assessed on 16 reading skills. It’s not enough to have some number concepts. Now five year-olds are expected to be proficient in 14 math skills. In 1960, children could simply sing songs. Today they must understand musical concepts and demonstrate knowledge of musical skills. Simply put, the joy has been sucked out of learning. Children are being robbed of their childhood.

It is time for educators to reclaim the word “learning.”

Learning is self-motivated, self-initiated, self-directed, and self-paced.

Learning is engaging, active, hands-on, and multi-sensory.

Learning is natural, real, authentic, and relevant.

Learning is creative, imaginative, innovative, and inventive.

Learning is a journey, an exploration, an adventure, and a quest.

Learning is exciting, joyful, wonderful, and playful.

Learning is challenging, enriching, inspiring, and exciting.

Learning is risk-taking, experimenting, making mistakes, and trying something different.

Learning is reflecting, being present, looking ahead, and dreaming big.

Learning is asking questions that don’t have one right answer, answering questions with multiple answers, finding answers that make you ask more questions, and always questioning the answers.

Reclaiming the word “learning” starts with educators, but then it must spread to parents, children, school administrators, school board members, teacher preparation programs, pediatricians, the education publishing industry, the education testing industry, the general public, and elected officials and policymakers. I anticipate it will take at least two generations worth of activism to undo the damage from No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, standardized testing and the over-reliance on data. What is desperately needed instead is Every Child at Their Own Pace, Your Own Journey, divergent thinking experiences, and learning from the students right in front of us.

“First Quarter Student Failure Data” was the name of the report that school administrators presented at a recent Board of Education meeting where I live. This was wrong on so many levels. The conclusions were based on attendance, completion of assignments, and test scores. We need to call out this practice and demand that our schools focus on children and learning; the kind of learning that children run to and climb.

  • Peter Rawitsch, November 28, 2020

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