by- Jinan KB

One of the biggest paradoxes of our times is that scientists at the Centre for Brain, Mind, and Machines (MIT) are creating artificial intelligence capable of self-learning based on the research as to how children learn the real world autonomously. This ‘Artificial Intelligence’ is then used to teach children how to analyze second-hand information! Our choice thus seems to be either to learn from children or become assistants to A.I. in order to engineer children’s cognitive processes. The scientists, recognizing that children are intelligent beings, are discarding existing educational theories and learning afresh as to how children learn the real world autonomously. So, should we not, too, begin our re-imagination based on how children learn the real world autonomously and question what has alienated us from our inherent biological roots?

Maybe ‘education’ is the cause of our alienation!

MIT’s Josh Tenenbaum explains how reverse-engineering the ways in which human babies learn has enabled the development of robots that can, for example, imagine new uses for tools they have never seen before.

Shouldn’t we question whether ‘education’ is necessary for the creation of knowledge? How has knowledge evolved and thrived prior to the establishment of formal education? What may be some of the conditions enabling the creation of life-sustaining knowledge?

We have seen over and over again that ‘illiterate, uneducated’ communities have been able to generate knowledge that never raised questions about being sustainable, being against people and nature. Shouldn’t we start from there? Or are we so conceited in our notion of ‘progress and evolution’ that we refuse to learn from the so-called illiterates?

Understanding the holistic paradigm of indigenous cultures may be difficult owing to our ‘literate’ mindset which reduces knowledge into a linear and compartmentalized format.

This tendency to compartmentalize can be seen clearly in how we have divided children’s activities into silos of learning, playing, working, and art. Children make no such divisions. If we look at children without compartmentalization, we would be able to see a biological being trying to make sense of life autonomously. Some of their actions may appear nonsensical to our educated minds. For example, children bouncing on sofas. Who would take it seriously? Why do almost all children bounce on sofas? Why is it not worthy of observation?

The fact that children make sense of the real world autonomously goes unnoticed by us, as these activities do not fall into any of our predetermined categories. More so because we are convinced that they need to be ‘taught’. By engaging with their context spontaneously, children intuitively understand the ‘affordances’ of each material and each situation and begin to make sense of the real world in a holistic way.

Therefore, we need to reframe our questions and have an altogether different paradigm of learning that transcends linearity.

The present educational paradigm which is based on ‘How to teach children?’ needs to be shifted to ‘How children learn?’.

I was fortunate enough to embark on a journey that enabled me to change the very paradigm of knowing, and which led me to change the question itself. My cognitive paradigm underwent a total change after I stopped reading for a couple of years, shifting from a reading-based cognitive system (word, books, reading, thinking, debating, reasoning) to one based on senses and experience (world, observation, exploration, and self-organization). At that time, I was living with a community of traditional non-literate potters. To my surprise, I found that the adults were not teaching children anything at all. Children were learning most things on their own. By the age of ten, most of these children had learned all aspects of their craft besides several life skills.

So, my enquiry got refined to ‘What and how children learn autonomously?’ and what conditions enable learning?

Studying the cognitive system of indigenous cultures is important in understanding what enables them to create life-sustaining knowledge, in which there is no conflict between nature and nurture. Such a study would help us explore the fundamental problems with the ‘modern’ cognitive system which has led us towards becoming anthropocentric and alienated.

Unlike ‘modernity’, the non-literate indigenous cultures provide the unknown as the primary context for the development of children. Unknown as a condition shapes a value system based on humility and wonder. It develops the cognitive system based on — senses, body, and real-world experiences, enabling presence. Dealing with readymade knowledge makes us engage with what is absent. Importantly, unknown also prevents the act of teaching as there is nothing to be taught. ‘No-teaching’ as a condition will enable the development of a completely different value system, based on openness, collaboration, and respect and a cognitive system based on playful exploration and discovery. This establishes the cardinal biological principle of autonomy and autopoiesis.

‘Modernity’ can be defined as the ‘beingness’ that got formed due to mediated learning rather than direct knowing, by using the mind rather than the whole being. It is with this set of pre-decided diktats that modernity determines what, how, and where to teach children.

The fundamental difference is that we, the literates, are being taught the WORD whereas the non-literates learn the WORLD autonomously. Owing to this, both get shaped by the respective characteristics and qualities embedded in their cognitive sources.

The linear and sequential format of books is shaping our cognitive systems. Even conscious reasoning is imbibed from the very nature of the organized input. The fundamental cause of fragmentation of body and mind is the manner in which the cognitive foundation gets structured. Being taught, the initial sensory inputs get subdued by linguistic inputs, naturally prioritizing the mind over the body. We are thus distorting the development of the cognitive system; a biological process established by life. Given conducive conditions children will be able to adapt organically, developing cognitive tools as per the biological imperative. It is vital to understand how the cognitive foundation gets built, that is how our brain architecture gets constructed. Will it be constructed with the inherent biological propensity for directly experiencing the real world? Or, will it be engineered by teaching in an environment of readymade-knowledge — books, toys, and products?

Modern education goes against the very grain of learning — the purpose, the content, the process. Children are born whole and the world they experience is integrated. Learning, playing, working, doing art are not compartmentalized activities for them. Then why do we fragment the children and compartmentalize the world for them?

Every act, for a child, is a process of exploration done playfully with complete involvement, where beauty is inherent to achieve aptness and economy in actions. What we call play is, actually, the activity by which children develop their cognitive system — tools, abilities, process, content, and foundation, based on their experience. This enables them to create knowledge autonomously.

The concept of readymade toys is more dangerous than schools, as they interfere with the child’s natural learning process. The introduction of readymade toys turns natural play — the cognitive activity — into artificial play. Children conjure up toys from any random object, say a book, to represent a house in their experiential re-enactment. This same book can then become a laptop representing a different experiential re-enactment. For a child, there is no separate activity called learning, as learning itself is the inherent outcome of every activity.

The holistic nature of the world awakens the wholistic nature in children. What the children awaken to, left to themselves, are the workings of the world — its form, functions, property of its materiality, processes, and the various phenomenon occurring around them.

Natural Learning is a two-way process. As a child learns the world, the world in return awakens and develops the cognitive system of the child.

Productification of qualities is modernity’s fundamental characteristic. Scientific attitude is replaced with science as a product. Sense of beauty is replaced with art. And value-education is added as an afterthought, critically omitting the role of emotion within the educational system. For an integrated person all these three qualities occur in conjunction with each other.

All along, for reimagining education, we have only attempted repair jobs. What we need is a total paradigm shift in which knowledge-creation by children is the starting point. It is time we overhauled the established educational structure for re-initiating knowledge-creation in society. Not just for children, but for adults too.

We need to reimagine our enquiry, based on why what and how children learn naturally. Perhaps the only place to understand this is within indigenous cultures, as they do not teach children. Children, there, have complete autonomy of being. These nonliterate indigenous cultures, therefore, remain nature-centric human beings instead of anthropocentric human-knowings.

The first challenge in reimagining education as ‘if People and Planet Matter’ therefore would be, reimagining the total educational paradigm of modernity.

Instead of waiting for an expert, would each one of us be willing to explore, enquire, learn and reorganize the environment for children to imbibe the real world of integrity, change, processes, harmony, and order?

Knowing is the nature of life.

Why one learns, is to sustain life.

What is learned, is species dependent.

What each species learns, is context-dependent.

Where and when, is the context.

The context dictates what to learn.

Content dictates how to learn.

Life itself ensures the continuation of life.