Saturday, May 23, 2020

Education Outside the Fishbowl: Observation, Evaluation, and How Children (Really) Learn

If a child learns in the forest, and there are no adults there to see it, did they really learn at all?

The summer my sister turned 13 was spent in a patch of woods--one of the few semi-wild spaces near us to be spared from development--with a group of neighborhood kids. They dragged in used furniture found on big-pickup trash days, set up complex political systems, and built and played from when they staggered out of bed in the early afternoon until everyone got too hungry and made it back to their respective houses for supper. There was arguing and conflict resolution, wild creativity and hands on problem solving. Sometimes I’d tour the small world they’d created, hidden away behind suburban backyards (though being an entire 2 ½ years older than my sister, I was definitely too cool to participate myself).

This was long enough ago that a group of 11 to 14 year olds disappearing all day, unsupervised, was considered pretty normal by everyone’s parents (something it seems is increasingly unusual now), but I think my mother was probably the only one of the lot who saw what was happening as learning. All the other adults seemed more likely to see it as kids just messing around, albeit in a harmless way, which was fine and definitely better than, I don’t know, drugs or partying or any of those other things parents start panicking about as their children ease into teenagehood. So they got to spend their summer days in peace, playing and learning under the trees.

I have to believe that most adults realize, at least on some level, that learning happens outside of the classroom (after all, that’s the way most of them have been learning since they left school). Yet they often behave as if they don’t. “Every week without learning is causing a lifetime’s worth of harm!” cry the politicians and pundits, eager to “reopen” an economy in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and parents nod along in concern. How can you just let kids not-learn for so long, after all? Isn’t that irresponsible?

Learning happens all the time, as any unschooler will tell you. Yet to many, it’s invisible. Their eyes slide over it. They can’t hear its rhythm in joyous laughter or in focused silence. “Learning” is supposed to occupy a specific place, to conform to a certain shape, and to follow all the correct rules (in the proper order). Learning, to them, means schooling. Anything else is a distraction.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to guess that the reason many parents don’t see learning when it happens for their children is because they don’t see it for themselves. They may learn informally, but without an official stamp of approval, I wonder if that learning remains invisible, too. One of my favourite John Holt quotes reads: “To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves...and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

This (mis)understanding of what learning is and how it happens has lead to the strange phenomena of seeing learning (with all its incumbent change and growth) not as something arising primarily through a learner’s experience, play, socialization, fascination and dedication, but as something done to children by properly certified adults. If, as Paulo Freire said, students are seen as “vessels to be filled” then when left unattended, they’ll simply sit empty. 

Learning, though, is not only something which must be done to, it must also be seen by. If learning isn’t witnessed by an appropriate expert, or if it can’t be evaluated by those same experts in an easy to measure way after the fact, does it really count?

If a child learns in the forest, and there are no teachers there to see it, did they really learn at all?


School isn’t a place where students get much privacy. In fact, every effort is made to make sure they get as little time away from prying eyes as possible. Some of this is genuine concern about what harm might be done to students by each other when no adults are watching. But I think it goes beyond that, as well. To know that learning is happening, children must be observed. If they’re not being observed, they’re probably not really learning (children, remember, cannot be trusted).

To be contained in a school building is to be almost constantly watched, assessed, and judged. Carol Black refers to the “evaluative gaze” of school, noting:
“There is something profoundly deadening to a curious, engaged child about the feeling of being watched and measured, or even, some studies suggest, the anticipation of being measured. Sure, some kids seem to dig it. They preen and pose for it, they compete with their friends for it, they want to be better than everybody else. But everybody can’t be better than everybody else, and this business of being constantly scrutinized and compared to others does something insidious to the life of a child. I've seen kids drop what they're doing in an instant when they realize they're being observed in an appraising way. A wall goes up. The lights go out.”
It’s always been clear to me, in my own life, that I need a lot of privacy to learn something new. I need to be able to struggle and make mistakes--to forget important facts and miss important steps--without the weight of eyes on me, correcting and judging and getting in the way. Even as an adult, to know you’re being evaluated can make you shrink, become stilted and overly cautious, the focus no longer on discovery or improvement but on not making any mistakes. The goal shifts to that of performing competence in a way that makes you look smart and accomplished. Actual learning, in all its messiness, gets shoved behind stage, where the audience can’t see any missteps.


Learning can be both shared and social, deeply private and personal. Sometimes it starts as one and morphs into the other, or switches back and forth based on an individual’s comfort (and other people’s openness and ability to withhold critique unless asked for). The role of teacher and mentor can be important (as can that of friend, parent, neighbor, librarian, peer), and there is definitely a time and place for evaluation of one sort or another. But when and where and how much and what sort and by who? Those are all important questions, and the answers should often be when a learner asks someone for their opinion or assistance, and in situations a learner has chosen to be in, and much less, and varied and flexible, and by people the learner respects and trusts. But the default, the normal, the everyday of childhood should not be one of scrutiny and evaluation.

We as a culture have come to believe that learning is something which only happens in captivity, in carefully controlled environments and under the keen observation of experts.

But that’s not the way learning really works. It’s not the way children grow best, not the way any of us feel the most confident and brave and excited and free, not how we live our best lives.

When we go to the forest--wandering through dappled shade, identifying frog calls drifting in from nearby wetlands, standing very still so as not to spook a nearby woodpecker, and plucking sumac berries to chew on--the learning is real and true, no matter who’s there to see it.

Children deserve to learn in peace, wherever it happens.