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Learning at its Best

We Are Not Blank Slates

Encyclopedia Catalana 1970 001

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Further evidence has been provided by neuroscientists that we are not blank slates. This predominant view has been held by the western caucasian world for centuries. Therefore it has informed our major cultural institutions such as education.

It’s easy to understand the formation of the industrial learning system based on the belief that since you are born a blank slate, it is imperative that you be exposed to a certain set of experiences to ensure you become a capable, contributing citizen aka an employable unit.

But we’re past that. As the linked article above says, “this discovery redistributes the balance between innate and acquired [knowledge], and represents a considerable advance in our understanding of how the brain works.” Now the question is how long will it take us to catch up with this new understanding.

How do you invite in prior knowledge into your classrooms? Do you account for more than what the student learned in school in years past? How do you provide space for children to discover and articulate that which they already know (from in and outside of school) and use it to amplify current classroom lessons or explorations?

About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


4 thoughts on “We Are Not Blank Slates

  1. My first instinct would be to develop further a materials-rich “classroom” that bridges the school house and the outside world so students can interact and learn through the stuff they know; privileging print-based learning – nearly exclusively – seems less appropriate than ever.

    Viva experiential education,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 6, 2011, 9:31 am
  2. I’ve always been convinced of this and becoming a mother made it even more clear. Children are born knowing so much & have an innate ability to make connections/think logically. It really is amazing!

    Posted by Ani | June 6, 2011, 12:21 pm
  3. How do you welcome what children bring to the classroom? Great question. I think it is critical to take the time to listen. So often we are rushed and keep rushing onto the next thing that we stop listening to children. They have amazing things to share if we stop thinking ahead and stay in the moment. This year, I have worked hard to stop myself from moving too fast and to take the time to listen when kids want to share a piece of their lives. So much humanity is lost when we don’t make space for children’s past experiences and knowledge in our classrooms, not to mention learning that is lost. When I am most stressed these moments of listening and rejoicing are essential to helping me keep my sanity and to remember what’s important.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | June 7, 2011, 7:25 am
  4. Great post Adam. Last week I was observing and working with a young middle school teacher who really loves her students and is deeply committed to becoming a great teacher. I was observing her teach about Alexander the Great and the Peloponnesian War. She and other members of her 7th grade team had planned together, and they had created an elaborate lesson with a lengthy DO NOW, many worksheets, several note-taking style worksheets, choices about how to complete the worksheets, and opportunities to fill out post-its based on the worksheets. What the lesson did not allow for was students to talk to each other in any kind of deep way about the material, to describe their previous conceptions of “great” leadership and whether Alexander fit their conceptions, what great leadership actually looked like, to them, and why. During the entire class I observed not a single question that asked students to do anything more than recall information, mostly that was available in their notes before them, on the walls or in their textbooks. The teacher saw herself as the sole source of knowledge in the class (to your point), and her “job,” was to fill her students with facts about the period so that they could produce them for an upcoming test.

    This is the old-fashioned, but most common model of teaching I observe in American classrooms, based on old-fashioned conceptions of neurobiology and the way human beings learn.

    How would you go about changing this? This is a challenge I, and many, face in our work in schools…

    What are the risks to teachers if they give up this model of instruction, especially if they are not content experts themselves?


    Posted by Kirsten | June 7, 2011, 8:17 am

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