Helping Children

Some Topics

Talking Copying and Cooperating

The invention of classrooms with lines of desks and passive, obedient students is obscure in history but it created a practice of education with an antisocial curriculum. In an ideal learning environment, students are talkative, interactive and free to move about. Humans do best when they form alliances with collaborators who can help each other as they work toward common goals. Humans have three innovative legacies: talking, cooperating and tool making. Students should be fully engaged in these activities everyday.

For some students, school is a painful, humiliating and sometimes disabling detour from real life involvements. Schools can be virtual realities that, in the worst case, distort a student’s understanding of how life is to be lived in the real world. The speeches at a college graduation ceremony I attended referred to the real world “out there” as distinct and different from the students’ world at the college. The students were described as heading out in the challenging and somewhat threatening “real world.” High technology employers routinely complain that university graduates are unrealistic and unprepared to assume responsibilities in the real world. Better education would remove the barriers that separate an educational virtual reality from the real world.

Some educators believe that children learn mostly by reading books but talking and copying skillful actions are more important. Students copy the speech and behaviors that are available in their environment. They prefer the speech and behavior of mentors and peers and seek role models in their culture world. Although teachers may discourage plagiarism and praise originality, copying is the key process that students must use to pass exams after reading books. In their study, students copy phrases from books and teachers' notes and try to remember these phrases so that they can write them down or recognize them on a multiple choice exam. A substantial and experiential meaning of textbook descriptions is usually lacking so that the student has little option but to copy and repeat descriptions with little or no understanding of what it actually means. Many emerge from schools lacking practical skills and believing that words and simple descriptions are real and adequate representations of what is really going on out there. 

The copying of phrases and descriptions may have little ultimate value, but another kind of copying is critically important, the copying of procedures. If a teacher demonstrates how to throw a football properly and all the students copy his movements and repeat that procedure often, they will become good football passers and can retain this skill for the rest of their life. Not all of these students will become highly paid quarterbacks but one might continue to enjoy touch football on the White House lawn after he is elected President. If I want to learn how to dance the salsa, I could read a book. Instead, I could enlist the help of an attractive female dance instructor and learn by doing with greater efficiency and enjoyment. My salsa lessons might also lead to other mimetic activities that would increase the breadth and scope of my education.