Children naturally love to learn, but they naturally fear disapproval. When the two experiences are repeatedly juxtaposed, they come to be automatically linked up in a child’s nervous system.
In 1920 the psychologist John Watson performed an experiment that provides an apt metaphor for the modern system of formal childhood education.
The purpose of the experiment was to extend Pavlov’s famous results in classical conditioning to emotional reactions in people. The subject of the experiment was a nine month old baby boy who came to be known as “Little Albert”. Little Albert was exposed to a series of fuzzy white stimuli, including a white rat and a rabbit. At first Little Albert bubbled and giggled with delight and took an interest in the critters, as children are naturally prone to do.
In the next phase of the experiment, however, Watson would stand behind the boy and strike a metal pipe with a hammer, producing a loud, sharp sound each time the fuzzy white stimulus was introduced. The sound was instinctively frightening to the little boy, who would start crying immediately when he heard it. After repeated juxtaposition of the stimuli, Little Albert soon began to cry merely upon introduction of the white rat, or indeed any other fuzzy, white object, such a fur coat or Santa Claus beard. In the words of Watson,
“The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry. Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on [his] left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table.“
In this metaphor, learning is the fuzzy white rat that all children are instinctively excited by. The hammer and pipe are the disapproval of teachers and peers. The loud sound is the fear, shame, and embarrasment that are an integral part of the classical conditioning procedure embedded throughout modern formal education.
From my own experience: in the second grade, when I was seven years old, I was supposed to learn long division of integers. Before I was ready, I was called to the board to perform a long division problem, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt embarrassed and ridiculed in front of the entire class. I later went on to earn a degree in math and physics, and attended graduate school in both subjects, without ever learning how to do long division. More accurately, I have learned it several times, but each time I have promptly forgotten it. Now, when I teach precalculus students how to do long division of polynomials, I have to relearn it every time. Of course I could overcome this block with sufficient work, but that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is this:
Our education system is accomplishing the opposite of what it should be accomplishing with phenomenal efficiency. My goal as an online tutor and academic coach is to reverse the damage, one student at a time.
(More on the Little Albert experiment.)