Child is always right

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Child is right

"The child is always right" is a maxim that might be derived from the teachings of the best educators. It oozes from Neill's "Summerhill". Neill created one of the best natural growth environments for the development in "school conditions". The outcomes have been meticulously documented and require no background in neurobiology to comprehend.

When I wrote Optimality of the learn drive, I received feedback only from a close circle of friends. "The child is always right" can be considered a pop metaphor to express the same truths.

The provocative part of the maxim is that "right" means "optimum", while it is often seen as "unerring" causing instant opposition of lesser educators. If optimum decision turns out wrong, we can observe the marvels of learning on one's own errors (learning by experience). Self-correction is a precious tool of adaptation.

Child's decision is optimum (before the effect), but often wrong (after the effect)

Global tragedy of schooled children today is that the maxim meets no understanding even in the circles of freedom-oriented educators. No wonder, there are very few bona fide Summerhills or Sudbury Valley Schools. Freedom is highly appreciated, but "child is always right" is usually scoffed. The best schools almost invariably have a golden component in the mix: genius educator driving his own school's philosophy. Very often, the death of the leader, may seriously undermine the philosophy and the outcomes. More often though, interference from the outside world, myths and misconceptions, and parental pressure undermine a chance of children to maximize their intelligence in the modern world.

Decision optimality

The simplest explanation of the optimality is that only a child's own brain knows its present contents (largely at the subconscious level). this is why it is the only adequate tool to optimize choices, behaviors, procedures, sources of knowledge, etc. in incremental adaptation to target environments.

If a child wants to kick a can of beer instead of learning algebra, given a healthy brain, and a healthy upbringing in conditions of freedom, we have no better option than to agree with the child's choice. Even if all human intuitions scream against such an interpretation, the brain is right. The proof is computational and beyond the grasp of an average parent or teacher. All I can do is to recommend books by Peter Gray, John Holt, Alexander Neill, etc. They address counterintuitive aspects of freedom that can be comprehended even by those who have been heavily indoctrinated in "Prussian philosophy".

Optimality caveats

The adaptation is optimum only when measured for target environments and when measured for the population. Adaptation parameters used by the brain, incl. the parameters of neurodiversity, are all targeted at the survival of the species for conditions in which humanity evolved. This implies that parameters of the environment are highly relevant. As technology changes many aspects of the environment, the brain should be given a chance to keep evolving. Sadly, we give it no chance. We attempt to micromanage adaptation, as much as we micromanage health and reproduction. Unwittingly, we developed a set of highly-efficient tools for manufacturing unhappy societies!

Harm of schooling

The criminal harm we inflict on children of the modern world is that we force them to adapt to school conditions for a dozen of formative years of their lives, and then demand re-adaptation to real life even though we know the conceptualization process has an inflection point that implies that for many, re-adaptation is not possible! We leave people crippled for life!

Swimming lessons

I hear from the teachers: "If a toddler wants to jump to water in the middle of the lake, will you allow it?". It is logically equivalent to "If an adult wants to jump into the middle of the busy highway, will you allow him?" Children suggested to me even a more fitting counterpoint: "If a baby elephant wants to drown in the middle of the lake, will you allow it?".

To get to the middle of the lake, a child needs to learn to swim first. Total freedom in that respect is optimum. Even Peter Gray's mom forced him to attend lessons in a swimming pool because of the fears of drowning. I observed children aged 2-10 learn to swim successfully on their own in conditions which most adults would consider horrifically dangerous. For fast learning, it is helpful if the swimming conditions are comparably challenging from day to day. In addition, it is helpful to make sure repetition can outpace forgetting and anxiety. Even then, dramatic changes in the weather may act as "creative disruption", which can speed up adaptation. Humans drown because of non-adaptation. Instead of adapting to water, they attempt to rationally control the entire learning process. By the age of 10, anxieties associated with water may be high enough for natural adaptation to become difficult. Moreover, freedom in water is generally disallowed. Optimum population adaptation based on neurodiversity will always entail casualties, which benefit the species, even if rapid environmental changes must be compensated by changes in the parameters of diversity.

Human rights

When I look at child's freedom from human right's perspective, I insist that the liberation of children will be the next step in the liberation of humanity from the dogmas of the past perpetuated by schooling. End of slavery, emancipation of serfs, or emancipation of women were all based on similar patterns, in which the oppressors needed to give up the notion of intellectual inferiority of the oppressed.

A parent might ask: "Will you let a 4 year old explore a town on her own?". John Taylor Gatto would say "Yes! this is how Bransons of this world are spawn". In societies where women are still not equal to men, a husband might ask: "Will you let your sexy wife get downtown on her own?". Sadly, when I try to tickle the heart of a female teacher's empathy by bringing up the emancipation of the women, I hear that my comments are misogynistic! I think that impression comes from the asymmetric empathy. We feel our own pain better than the pain of others. A woman wants to be free, but she cannot see that the exact same principles apply to a child.

Historic condemnation

A growing global population of unschoolers is a good indicator: once we end school slavery, we will look at the discrimination of children the way we look at slavery today, i.e. with amazement at the scope of human ignorance!

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