October 29, 2009

A Hunger of the Mind

"We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the we see, the more we are capable of seeing."

- Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She was one of 10 children born in Nantucket of Quaker parents. Lucky for her, the Quakers valued education. They insisted that girls and boys receive the same quality of education. The Quaker religion taught intellectual equality between the sexes. Additionally, Nantucket's importance as a whaling port meant sailors' wives and families were left for months and years to manage affairs while their husbands were at sea, thus fostering independence and self-reliance for the women.

Maria Mitchell was an astronomer and involved in education and learning her whole life. Her quote for me connects with two other quotes/thoughts:

"Empires of the future will be empires of the mind."

- Winston Churchill

"All children are artists. The challenge is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

- Pablo Picasso

Children, when raised in positive, stimulating environments, are naturally curious and natural learners. We don't teach babies to sit up, walk, or talk. They learn those naturally. Each child uniquely discovers and gravitates to different aspects and modes of learning about his or her environment. And, then we put them in school. And, it is not immediate that we stop letting them learn by discovery, but it is usually by first grade in most schools that we start putting them through the learning factory system. This has worked, but I think the center will not hold for much longer.

Kids are different now - their learning needs are different and their skills are different. They are technologically more savvy than most of the adults in their environment. This fact combined with the fact that the need to prolong curiosity and nurture discovery as great empires of the mind add to my sense of urgency to create a new type of more customized and individualized learning system in our schools.

As hard as the transition will be, I think it is best for the children, and their futures. If we can teach them to see, and to think critically, and to synthesize information, and to learn to value foundational knowledge which is built and added to over a lifetime, they will see and do things beyond our imaginations. But, if we shut down their curiosity by submerging their needs and wants to ours, if we cling to teacher-centric environments, in the end we will all lose.

I think of this quote and use it as a source of humble striving and urgency:

"We would rather be ruined than changed..."

- W. H. Auden.

I don't want to be among those shortsighted "we." Do you? Do you want that for yourself or for your school?

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What do you think? How do you interpret this idea in your environment?