Kids can’t learn unless they do

« You and I are flesh and blood, but we are also stardust. » A noted biologist said this to help students understand creation of the universe. She might well have added, « And everything else on earth was once stardust, too. »

After the big bang, some 18 billion years ago, it was the ability of two bits of stardust to unite — protons and neutrons — that led to the creation of everything else.

Just as it would be silly to try and draw straight lines from that common beginning to details of the world around us, so it’s absurd to think we can make decisions without multiple consequences. Instead of straight lines, the world has myriad, interconnecting, branching pathways along which any decision can send ripples.

It is this interconnectedness that sustainability tries to address. It says that in reaching decisions, we should assess impacts on the environment, the economy, and human well being.

If we don’t attend to economic well being, people will trash the environment in order to survive; if we don’t attend to human well being — if we don’t provide the infrastructure to develop healthy and imaginative individuals, and strong, resourceful communities — we will have a lousy economy; if we don’t attend to the environment, we will end up disabling people and hamstringing the economy.

This is the kind of thinking that lies behind the efforts of Mary Gordon to bring three-dimensional learning to preschool children. Gordon is head of the parenting program that operates in 34 of Toronto’s schools.

She points out that very young children learn from their senses — from doing. If they haven’t had enough « doing » by the time they enter kindergarten, they will not be ready to learn because they won’t be able to translate abstract concepts (words and ideas) into their own realities.

And if they’re not ready to learn, they could spend the rest of their lives playing catchup and operating below their capacities. In other words, we’d be living in a society that was not developing skilled and imaginative people. We would not be achieving sustainability.

In any of the city’s parenting centres, you’ll find toddlers and children just learning to crawl, as well as three- and four-year-olds. They’re playing with specially designed toys; they’re crawling under tables to learn the concept of « underneath; » they’re learning about gravity and balance and leverage by stacking coloured sponge pads, and playing on a seesaw.

As Gordon explains it, they are learning crucial abilities, such as:

• Spatial intelligence, the ability to plan visually in your head. Without it you can’t picture how to fold paper. You do poorly at geometry. You can’t visualize how to lay out a garden. You would be a miserable architect.

• Abstract conceptual thinking. Without it you do poorly in algebra, and you should stay out of research and development.

• Problem solving in general. This involves linear thinking in practical, organized ways. It’s learned initially from simple tasks such as figuring out how to free the wheel of a wagon which is stuck behind a chair leg. Without it you won’t make a particularly good electrician or computer programmer. Nor will you be good at intuitive leaps.

• Social intelligence. Most real learning happens in relationships with other people, says Gordon. And without doubt, the best decisions for sustainability come from collaborative efforts involving people from many disciplines and from all walks of life.

• Body self-knowledge, which is a sense of what’s going to happen if you physically do this or that. It allows children to develop a sense of mastery play, says Gordon. And that helps children stick at something until they get it right because they anticipate that a task can be achieved. It fosters perseverance.

• A « go-ahead attitude in life, » which results from early success in learning. This, says Gordon, impacts on pretty well everything a person undertakes in life.

If we want Canada, and Canadians, to prosper, if we want the option of preserving our natural heritage through the next century, this is exactly the kind of program that should be available in every school district in every part of the province.

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