Fostering Creativity and Lifelong Learning in Young Minds

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Sugata Mitra delivered everything you could want in a grand prize-winning TEDTalk -- it was timely, inspiring, provocative and highly entertaining. His central thesis that our current systems and processes for educating children across the globe need to be completely wiped out and radically restructured into structure-free, micro-learning outposts connected by broadband is radical, to say the least. Yet whether or not you agree fully with Mitra's conclusions, it's worth taking seriously his arguments about the inadequacies of traditional pedagogy and his call for using student-centered learning to help all children -- regardless of their background and circumstances -- become 21st century learners.

Mitra's approach to education and his call to toss aside our assumptions about the "natural" teacher-student relationship reminded me of the work of the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. In his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, based in no small part on his experiences teaching poor children how to read under his country's dictatorship, Freire speaks of how traditional pedagogy oppresses both teacher and student. Under this unidirectional "banking model," children are treated as mere empty vessels that rely on teachers to fill up their brains with officially sanctioned knowledge. Freire argues for a new pedagogical paradigm, one in which the student and teacher create knowledge together, with the teacher helping the student develop critical consciousness by encouraging them to question their reality and creating the conditions for self-guided learning. Under his theory of conscientization, students learn to think for themselves, and education helps end a passive culture of silence, leads to an escape from poverty and reshapes society.

How would this look in practice? For much of U.S. history, while a small elite received a top-quality education, most children were taught just enough of the 3 R's to succeed in agricultural, and later, assembly-line factory jobs. Over the last few decades, as the world around us changed dramatically and exponentially, and other countries made up ground or surpassed our students' performance, K-12 policy, education reform still remained primarily focused on teaching literacy and math skills -- from the No Child Left Behind law to the current push among states to adopt, implement and measure progress towards the recently developed Common Core standards.

Reading and math are critical subjects and educational building blocks, for sure. Yet, when the thrust of formal education is principally on teaching these two areas of study, and the tug and pull of increasing standardized testing to drive learning -- as opposed to creating environments that support learning at all levels and in all activities -- we run the risk of stifling students' natural creativity.

If we truly want to see improvement for children of all ages, races and classes, we need to move away from rigid structures of teaching and assessing learning. We need to create environments that allow children to experience the wonder of education, tap into their creative potential, and support lifelong learning in a broad range of subjects such as the arts, sciences and history. We need teachers who play multiple roles in the classroom -- facilitator, cheerleader, supporter and guide--not only as a lead for learning transference. And we need to draw upon community-based or intergenerational resources to foster children's cognitive, emotional and social development, along the lines of Mitra's ideas for bringing "Granny" back into learning.

Where I struggle the most with imposing the top-down traditional educational framework on students is in early childhood education -- an area of keen interest to me and my colleagues at the Kellogg Foundation. The research on brain development and student learning shows us that infants, toddlers and preschoolers learn much more effectively when they learn through play and exploring their world with their peers and with a helping hand from a teacher or provider than through a rigid emphasis on assessing academic outcomes.

One example of this approach is a program with amazing results called Tools of the Mind used with vulnerable children ages 3-6 in tens of thousands of classrooms in a dozen states. The program doesn't focus exclusively on developing young children's reading and math abilities, per se; instead, it emphasizes the development of "mental tools" or executive function skills. The children stay focused on the task at hand, avoid distractions and mental traps, manage their emotions and organize their thoughts. Children are taught a variety of strategies with guidance from a teacher and then they master those strategies while applying them to their friends before finally becoming able master their own behavior and set their own learning goals. Tools harnesses the same social energy of group learning and talking between students as Mitra's intervention, showing how this can propel children's interest and internalization of strategies. Tools of the Mind's encouragement of self-regulation supports the development of curiosity and leads to positive outcomes for its students, while not always immediately detected by narrow academic tests, these outcomes, however, dramatically change the classroom learning environment and children's attitudes toward learning .

Children such as these in the U.S., Mitra's India and across the globe lack access to the type of resources and preparation beginning at birth that their counterparts from wealthier, highly educated families enjoy. As a result, they need much more help with their social and emotional development if they are to succeed academically. By engaging these children in their own education by building learning communities, and helping them develop their curiosity, creativity and self-control, they can become lifelong learners, and the achievement outcomes that we all desire will follow.

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