A Thousand Rivers

What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning

“…Any wildlife biologist knows that an animal in a zoo will not develop normally if the environment is incompatible with the evolved social needs of its species. But we no longer know this about ourselves. We have radically altered our own evolved species behavior by segregating children artificially in same-age peer groups instead of mixed-age communities, by compelling them to be indoors and sedentary for most of the day, by asking them to learn from text-based artificial materials instead of contextualized real-world activities, by dictating arbitrary timetables for learning rather than following the unfolding of a child’s developmental readiness. Common sense should tell us that all of this will have complex and unpredictable results. In fact, it does. While some children seem able to function in this completely artificial environment, really significant numbers of them cannot. Around the world, every day, millions and millions and millions of normal bright healthy children are labelled as failures in ways that damage them for life. And increasingly, those who cannot adapt to the artificial environment of school are diagnosed as brain-disordered and drugged.

“It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”

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Occupy Your Brain

On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-occupation of Common Sense

“… In “developed” societies, we are so accustomed to centralized control over learning that it has become functionally invisible to us, and most people accept it as natural, inevitable, and consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.   We assume that this central authority, because it is associated with something that seems like an unequivocal good – “education” – must itself be fundamentally good, a sort of benevolent dictatorship of the intellect.  We allow remote “experts” to dictate what we must learn, when we must learn it, and how we must learn it.  We grant them the right to test us, to measure the contents of our brains and the value of our skills, and then to brand us in childhood with a set of numeric rankings that have enormous power over our future opportunities to participate in the economic and political life of our society.  We endorse strict legal codes which render this process compulsory, and in a truly Orwellian twist, many of us now view it as a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what a higher authority tells us to learn.”

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Three Cups of Fiction

On Greg Mortenson, and how our collective fantasy about saving the world with schools goes from romance to comedy to tragedy

“…Greg Mortenson, like everybody else, loves to tell the touching story of the girl from the village who studies hard, passes her school exams, and goes on to become the proverbial doctor-who-will-come-back-to-the-village-and-reduce-infant-mortality.   He raises a lot of money with that story, and a lot of donors go to sleep at night feeling better about the world because they are helping it to happen.  But what Greg doesn’t tell us, and what the donors don’t want to think about, is what happens to all the other children.   The dirty underside of our system is that schools as we know them today are structurally designed to fail a reliable percentage of kids.  Interestingly, they reliably fail a much higher percentage of kids in in low-income areas than they do in affluent areas, and this is true from Detroit to Gilgit-Baltistan.  When we put children from traditional rural areas into school, what we’re doing is transitioning them from a non-cash agricultural economy where nobody gets rich but nobody starves into a hierarchical system of success and failure in which some lives may get “better,” but others will get much, much worse.  Guess which club has more members?  Welcome, boys and girls, to the global economy.

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Essays & articles

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For Educators

  1. ArielAriel09-08-2014

    I love You! You Enlighten! The World Transforms Itself. Thank You “Light Workers”

  2. Anastasia BettsAnastasia Betts02-05-2015

    i’m very interested in this film in the work you’re doing. I’ve worked in education all my life and I’m very passionate about transforming the current paradigm.

  3. Mars Colorado TuesdayMars Colorado Tuesday02-06-2015

    A very interesting film.

  4. yvonne Frostyvonne Frost02-11-2015

    Wow, as a home educator I can identify so much with your film. My son learns what is relevant to him, can think outside the box and is not constrained by the ideas of government.Thankyou for your fantastic film.Will definately be sharing!

  5. SHSH02-14-2015

    This wonderful, very important film has changed my entire view of education. I’ve watched it several times, and have recommended it many times. I am making a donation today. Thank you so much!

  6. yannyann02-14-2015

    Your movie had a particualr resonance for me. When I came back from Zanskar and Ladakh in 2001 I had exactly the same feelings and analysis as the one brilliantly developed in your film. I remember meeting some swiss trekkers who had financed a school and asking them what all the pupils would become after…. they had never thought about that and answered “they’ll become teachers” 100 teachers in a village of 500?
    I discovered that school between 4 walls could be violent destroyers of peaceful social settings and could out-culture people,from a region in a very short lapse of time.
    I remember not wanting to finance anything because I thought there was a fragile and beautiful equilibrium already being destroyed by us. i also remember a big difference between households with and without the tv. I was shocked by how the arrival of a tv destroyed the social habit of spending time together at night and pushed people to want porducts they had never heard of before.
    i rembember feeling that they had managed to keep a beautiful self sustaining and humanly rich way of living and wishing that other human beings could be like that. i had exactly the same encounter with a mother whose kids were gone and who could not even harvest, she was discovering loneliness.
    I remember the laughs in the fields and the beauty of simplicity. Of course life was maybe harsh from an external point of view for people used to certain ways of living, but people were laughing , talking, singing, and taking care of elders.
    Of course, I only stayed for 3 months, so I did not get a deep enough understanding of the complexities of the society, but it is a human experience that I’ll never forget. i was happy to see Dolma was still there and active (just spend a few days in her guest house helpeing to prepare bread and eating delicious dishes from her magical garden)
    Thanks for this film that enabled my memory to relive these intense moments of life. Today I have kids and am shocked by the education they get in the French system. i’m thinking of unschooling but it’s a hard decision to make unless you live in a community with strong social links. Your film should be shown to most governments to understand the roots of the educational system failures. Kids need freedom to explore, to collaborate, to play and spend time close to nature…not confinement,
    I really wish you all the best with the movie and hope it will have an impact on many families, ladakhis and wise and humble decision makers!

  7. Rebecca DmytrykRebecca Dmytryk02-04-2016

    Just subscribing… LOVE what you’re doing. Stay in touch!

  8. KyrillKyrill09-05-2016

    I’m not sure why I’m engaging with someone who puts “expert” and “data” in unnecessary scare quotes (and of course goes on to rely on plenty of expert testimony and experimental data) but I guess I feel that people who are passionate about the progress of young people must have at least some place from which they can see eye-to-eye. I read you article through the Washington post website and I liked what you said about phonics and contexts/educational niches. I just feel you could be so much more effective if you used the educational literature to clear yourself of intellectual detritus like “learning styles” rather than deferring to the received wisdom of this or that tradition.

    Your paragraph starting “All social mammals evolved…” could not be closer to the debate by Luria, Vygotsky and Piaget at the heart of mine and most people’s teacher training. You pose the question of “how did you learn to use a computer?” as if it is outside of our understanding. There is very reliable HCI data on how this happens and many of the conclusions you come to about active usage are the very things we put at the heart of our practice as teachers.

    To then say that “text-based” activity is peripheral (unlike a computer?) is to ignore that written language constitutes much of our culture in a very literal sense (the circles of irony with the etymology here is not incidental).

    You then throw out the entire scientific establishment on the basis of the WEIRD study. The authors of this study have only described the data. They have not shown that this means the results are not generalizable. I can see why it would mean that for someone who thinks culture constitutes human nature but that is a whole other debate. I’d simply point out that their conclusion is not relevant to your argument. The idea that “Americans are outliers within outliers” is a very strange reading of the data. They are only outliers because of the nature of the sampling. Clearly if the sample was of Americans (as it would need to be if you were evaluating the efficacy of US education) the data would again settle into various bell curves (and pareto distributions, yes).

    Individual differences are of course at the heart of educational research and you present two contradictory stances about how good or bad this is. The comparative data analyses that allowed us to understand that dyslexia and many other disorders are on a spectrum surely do not suggest that we should therefore stop providing personalized provision for the students who have these disabilities. Yes, if we all lived in a cave there’d be no such thing as blindness but we don’t. We do however live in a world where reading and attending to a task are usually necessary to succeed. Speech and Language therapists now have the ability to provide intervention for identified kids allowing them to overcome the limitation.

    Finally you suggest IQ sores are “a measure on modernization”. Olympic running speeds have also increased year on year (and at a higher rate than IQ): are you going to say that races are not a measure of speed but a measure of modernization?

    If you really want to make a difference please engage with experts rather than othering them into scare quotes. Thanks

  9. Carol BlackCarol Black09-10-2016

    Hi Kyrill:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Unfortunately, you seem to be misconstruing a number of my points. I assume you did not read the article by Henrich et al.? It is not a study, as you say, but a literature review, and neither it nor I “throw out the entire scientific establishment” on the basis of its findings. The point of the article, and of my piece, is simply that scientists who make broad generalizations about human nature, behavior, or development based on studies conducted on a narrow subpopulation may be reaching the inappropriate conclusion that their findings are more universal than in fact they are. Luria and Piaget have certainly made similar points, and both are referenced in the piece by Henrich et al.

    At no point do I say that “text-based” activity is “peripheral.” Not sure where you got that.

    As far as putting “experts” in scare quotes, the point of my piece is not that science is lacking in value, but that imposing practices on children based on provisional or incomplete data is potentially harmful. The imposition of direct phonics instruction on very young children — the Common Core standards in the US now require kindergartners to read — is a perfect example of this, and I think millions of children are going to be harmed in lasting ways by this policy. Many teachers and researchers agree with me; you can check out the Too Much Too Soon campaign in the UK and the Defending the Early Years Project in the US:

    The history of the learning styles debate is another good example of the dangers of this type of over-extrapolating from limited data. Most people who work with children can see that they have differences in learning, which include different perceptual tendencies as well as different cognitive approaches to tasks or information. A number of (sometimes methodologically questionable) studies produced data that supported the idea of these different “learning styles.” So a process of over-extrapolating from that data began, and the widespread practice of diagnosing children’s “learning styles” in order to mechanically tailor instruction to “visual” or “auditory” learners began. Then further studies began to produce data indicating that this type of diagnosing and grouping was not helpful, and now scientists like Daniel Willingham are over-extrapolating from that data to a blanket statement that “learning styles don’t exist.”

    The reality is that this is an enormously complex and unsettled area of science. Clearly there are differences in how people learn, but how to describe those differences, how they really operate, and in what ways they should or should not impact our practices remains unclear. We just don’t know enough yet.

    So the problem is not science, but arrogance. A core value of serious scientific inquiry is humility; an appreciation for the complexity of the phenomenon studied, and an awareness of how much remains unknown. This appropriate humility would prevent many of the harmful applications of science that I discuss in the piece, and render the scare quotes unnecessary.

    Thanks for the discussion.


  10. KyrillKyrill09-12-2016

    Thank you for getting back to me in such detail Carol. I certainly could not disagree with the points made here – I suppose your rhetorical style made me feel rather like you were making us teachers and researchers into a THEM who are out to oppress children into their schemes

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