How Children Learn By Grace Lee Boggs

How Children Learn

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, February 7, 1999

The Hand : How its Development Shaped the Brain, Language and Human Culture

By Frank R.Wilson Pantheon 1998

marygrove_SC_0340This is a book for folks who are ready to go beyond blaming teachers and/or parents, children, white people, administrators and school boards for our failing schools.

Frank Wilson is a practicing neurologist who became fascinated with the role of the hand in the evolution of the human race and the development of the mind because of his experiences (1) as an adult trying to learn how to play the piano and (2) as a doctor working with patients who have difficulty using their hands.

After intensive study Wilson became convinced that one of the major reasons for the crisis in our schools is that we have underestimated the role of the hand. Because our society has made such a sharp separation between the mind and the body and because we are so prejudiced against manual labor, we have created a brain-centred (cephalocentric) educational system based on the illusion that we can educate the mind by itself. This system doesn’t work because it violates the way that learning actually takes place. Biologically the head and the hand evolved together. “For the brain to work it needs information that can only come from the hand acting on objects or from tactile and kinesthetic perception.” “There is not, and cannot be…anything called intelligence, independent of the behavior of the entire organism, or of its entire and exclusive history of interactions with the world.” “The attainment of early language milestones in the child always takes place in company with the attainment of very specific motor milestones.”

Our schools actually do violence psychologically to children because we fill their minds with information and confine them to classrooms, divorcing them from physical activity and the physical world at a time when they need to know what the world really is about.

We also do violence psychologically to our children by emphasizing individual achievement at the expense of cooperative learning. Studies of the transition from simians to Homo sapiens show that humans worked together to make tools, using both their heads and their hands in what Wilson calls the “heterotechnic cooperation” of peers and adults. This kind of cooperation is almost totally absent in today’s formally constituted learning environments. Only in neighborhood situations outside the schools do young people work cooperatively with peers and adults, for example, to take an engine apart and put it back together. Unfortunately, even that experience is increasingly denied to kids in today’s automated society. “Nobody fixes anything anymore. Now you just buy parts and change them. Who wants to just change parts?”

Art classes are often the first to get the ax when a school faces a financial crisis.

because we do not appreciate the role of hands in the development of our heads.

Wilson asked Anat Baniel, a physical therapist for performing artists, what can possibly be done in schools to give children a better chance to learn. “It’s not by chance that there’s so much breakdown,” she replied. “The question is where to start. There’s a lot of talk about class size…but class size isn’t the only problem.

“Without going into contents or subject, I think a big problem is when the teaching is done independent of the child’s subjective reality. Somebody walks into the room to teach something without taking into account in a real way the children who are there. For me it’s a little bit like what’s wrong with classical physical therapy. I want this child to crawl, so I’m going to put him through these exercises, one-two-three, one-two-three. Well, it’s a great idea but one-two-three not only doesn’t get every child to crawl but very often induces a traumatic state, with dissociation, more self-hatred, since it doesn’t bring into account and connect with where the child really is and how he or she is actually operating at the time.

“Let’s take teenagers…whose hormones are raging mad in their body…and you’re sitting there and guiding them through history or mathematics or German. You’re not connecting with anything that matters to them. Our understanding is that in this way we connect to their brain.

“In that sense there needs to be a revolution in comprehending what works in learning….Take, for example, teaching a child to read or write.There is a way to work with a non-reading child so that by the time they finally do it, it can be almost a non-event….Or you can teach it and teach it and teach it and it’s hard for them and hard for them and hard for them. And what do they learn? They learn that it’s hard.”

“Another thing….It is vitally important for people to continue to develop their feeling world – their kinesthetic and perceptual world.”

This is an empowering book. It has reinforced my belief that we need to incorporate community-building into the curriculum. Why can’t schoolchildren from K-12 take responsibility for planting community gardens, maintaining neighborhood streets, rehabbing houses, recycling neighborhood waste? In this way we can begin building a community inter-generational spirit in our schools and neighborhoods and at the same time reverse their physical deterioration. Involving the hands and hearts of children will get their cognitive juices flowing. Learning will come from practice which has always been the best way to learn.

Michigan Citizen


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