Business Times

Tomorrow CHILD: Nature not nurture

By Jagdish Hathiramani

In our continuing series of features delving into the world of tomorrow, we once again turn our attention to education; an area which some of you may recall we already touched upon in a previous segment of tomorrowSERIES. However, where this journey deviates from the last is that, instead of focusing again on the methodology of teaching; we chose to explore the potential of the ultimate tool of them all, the human brain. And once we decided to foray into this realm, our search naturally led us to the most learning-centric area of our development... Childhood.

It stands to reason that when we speak of childhood, and by extension the child, we have to explore the fundamentals of how education, and particularly the removal of physical limitations to the access of educational resources, can influence our race in coming years. It is also a time when the capacity of the brain is also similarly limitless and, due to the yet to be cemented nature of our neural pathways, allows the potential for a leap in knowledge which can be called, for lack of a better term, exponential. Unfortunately, it is also an area of the future in which few have journeyed. No doubt, this has something to do with the massive problems existing in the field of education today, which is possibly overshadowing deep thought in this area.

As such, since the paradigm of accessing information in the future may necessitate an evolution from the more passive, student teacher relationship to the more active, knowledge seeker type of mental conditioning, the rearing of the child of the future may play an even greater role than their education. A case in point; from time immemorial children have accepted knowledge from teachers, but will the children of tomorrow continue to follow this path or will the day eventually dawn where they will also be prepared enough to take on the added mantle of researcher and become self taught, especially now that, thanks in large part to the Internet, they are no longer restricted in any way in their explorations? Or is chatting with friends on Facebook and watching funny videos on YouTube the extent for which we can hope from the majority of children who are as of now only using the Internet as a resource in the search for knowledge as a part of their assigned school homework.

To clarify, the question we attempted to ask is this: Besides access to potentially limitless technology, what else is necessary to change the very concept of education, starting with children, and, as a result, further propel our evolution. So prepare to bid farewell to the childhood of childhood, as we tackle one of the oldest building blocks of our world, childhood development, in the wonderful world of the tomorrowCHILD.

Increasingly, so called innovative digital technologies are taking centre stage as the cure all for virtually every one of education's ills. More computers in classrooms are repeatedly touted as the fix that is needed for kids to achieve their unlimited potential. But is this really the case?

The arguments for this are that digital technologies allow kids to take charge of their own learning, undertake projects and concepts which would otherwise be too complex and even facilitate knowledge building communities which have the potential to even span the globe. However, going back to when we were kids, were the majority of us even capable of this? Specially since it must also be rmembered that the fundamentals of teaching have not changed in all that time. Also, considering that these technologies have existed for at least one generation, is just the fact that these new technologies are available sufficient to alter the paths taken to knowledge?

Some suggest that this shift is already occurring and what is needed is advocating more direct exploration and experimentation such as that which is standard practice at many preschools where there is no structured learning per se and just play time. This can even extend to children living in remote villages by directing their exploration and experimentation to learn about their conditions on the ground and, through the trial and error work with soil, air and vegetation, facilitating innovation in agriculture in their communities.

Another way these technologies are said to be helping is by allowing children to express themselves by facilitating storytelling, communicating, designing, inventing, creating, etc. Additionally, kids would benefit from experiencing contact with others across multiple cultures, languages and modes. All of this will allow them an ability to grow beyond limits of their locality without discounting the impact of the community in their immediate vicinity. There are also plans in the works to make access even easier by going beyond keyboards into verbal and non verbal communication capabilities to open up these tools to even younger audiences while at the same time bridging language gaps.

Some examples of these technologies are computers which can be used to learn abstract concepts such as math, science, etc. through art, sculpture, music and other forms of play. One such device is called "Topobo" and has been described as "an innovative 3-D construction set that enables kids to build walking creatures and other dynamic sculptures, and then program behaviors through direct manipulation".

However, as great as all this sounds, it must be cautioned that some research has claimed that, while infants may be attracted to sound and motion, it is only at an older age that kids can understand narratives and dialogue. In fact, research by the Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearing House, has found that using interactive technologies do not advance learning any further or quicker than traditional teaching methods. The true difference is how the material can be made alive to excite kids and interest them in learning, a function of the quality of the teacher and thier own familiarity and level of comfort with the relevant tech.

If just the availability of technology is not enough to kick start humanity's evolutionary overdrive, what is actually needed? Some suggest even more radical options. Hardy's "Mothers and Others" for example makes a case for group child rearing where the village collectively raises children much like in a commune or Israeli kibbutz. But this is not without its own set of problems.

Ironically, for more ideas about a child development in the future, we actually had to go much further back in time and access a case from the 1920's related to child rearing using nature as its foundation. Descibed in the book titled "Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing", by A.S. Neill, this is admittedly not for the faint of heart, especially if you are a concerned parents, but some of the ideas expressed in it do strike true.

One being that every child has their own pace and tendencies and these should be the cornerstone of their education. So programmes should be customised based on the instincts of the child themselves. This will also only work if the definition of success,according to the book, is altered to "working joyfully and living positively".

Other so-called 'hippy', new age comments from a multitude of sources have also suggested concepts such as allowing children to be as noisy as they want without fear of punishment, however much it pains us adults. This is because inhibiting these natural instincts is said to just retard optimum development, even leading to a child's withdrawal.

In fact, these 'manuals' promote a number of behaviours which may prove shocking to our parents and teachers, and no doubt even to us, with the idea of punishing these said to be impinging on the rights and freedoms of the child. Some 'novel' examples of child rearing tips include: No scheduled feedings, self regulation by children, letting childhood tantrums play out without admonishment, etc.

Interestingly, Neill's advice on how to get children to eat healthy is trust in nature. After a brief period of experimentation lasting a week or more, kids will naturally prefer to eat healthy should they be given unfettered access to a range of food types and so be allowed to make decisions about what they want to eat by themselves. Although, this was noted at a time before advertising, as well also the marketing efforts, it had the strong influencing effect of today.

Further, concepts pertaining to respect for property, not stealing, toys, rewards, etc. are all dismissed as artificial. The first two attitudes are said to be learned organically after a child reaches a certain stage in their development in relation to others, while the last two are seen as unnecessary measures for a child who always gets what they want. However, it is important to note that toys are neither encouraged nor discouraged but rather do not get undue importance placed on them as a reward, etc.

So how do all these concepts apply to the idea of educating tomorrowCHILD? Simple. Rather than teaching them what you want them to know, let them focus on learning what they want and what, organically, will lead to their best performance.

The central theme behind many of these works seem to be that by attempting to mould our children in our image (nurture) we make them as neurotic and as flawed as us, if not more. This is in relation to the wholly nature-based, self discovery model which promotes natural instincts tempered with social interactions as an avenue to learning. A more holistic way of approaching a problem rather than fitting the child into a standardised learning structure where they will often be restricted in choice no matter which path they take.

The world of tomorrow will also ideally benefit from humans who are more in touch with their natural side and will therefore better use resources. Also, tomorrowCHILD rearing methods will apparently allow us to regain the ability to reduce our learning curves to such a drastic degree that we can learn or even re-learn any skill we need in ever shortening time spans, finally giving us humans the historically much sought out pedestal of a true 'renaissance man'.

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