The Wolves of Learning

At birth we are blessed with a natural curiosity. There is a great wildness in it. A shaft of sunlight illuminates a world of dust and delicate objects floating in air, as if by magic. A child who catches a glimpse of this will stop whatever it’s doing and begin to explore what it sees. We are called to learn.

Our natural curiosity is like a wild animal; it hunts where it needs to in order to satisfy its deep hunger. As children, we awaken each day with an insatiable appetite to learn. It is in our early years that we are “wolves of learning”. There is a deep, DNA-based, natural connection between learning and survival; call it the burning relevance of the empty stomach.

Over the centuries, as we have institutionalized learning, we have taken something precious from our children, our young “wolves of learning”; and from ourselves. The wildness of our natural curiosity has been tamed, domesticated, and subdued.

We have done this by giving our children virtually no control over their education, little responsibility for their learning and whatever natural curiosity they have has been replaced with a structured curriculum. We reward them for following directions and doing what they are told and reprimand them if they wander too far from our agenda. Since it is our agenda and not theirs, they put minimum effort, if any effort at all, into what we ask them to do. They are in compliance mode. Compliance produces the lowest level of effort. Fear of retribution becomes the prime motivator rather than the excitement of learning.

We have trained them to expect to be fed without going on the hunt. Like domesticated pets, we offer them bland processed learning laid out in prescribed amounts at certain times of the day. We decide what they are fed, how much, and when. They rarely experience learning by their own wits, their natural curiosity, or even serendipity. They will not gorge on learning and fight over the scraps until their bellies are full.

We have so successfully domesticated our students that they are likely to rebel when they are asked to use the natural gifts for learning with which they were born. It’s as if we were trying to release a pet house dog into the wilderness, the odds of survival would be small. Within hours the dog would be back in front of the door, begging to have its master serve its dinner to it in a dish.

Let us find ways to give our children back their birthright, their natural curiosity and facility to learn. There have to be ways that we can organize our learning institutions to accommodate individual curiosity and the standardized curriculum. I believe that thoughtful educators can create environments that are less restrictive and provide much more natural habitat for learning. Let us find ways to foster the wildness and thrill of learning again. Let us answer the “Call of the Wild”.


11 thoughts on “The Wolves of Learning

  1. Wow Pete, another excellent post! Unfortunately, I must agree with you.

    However, I do hope that new technologies, which are more participatory and encourage creativity, will help our children to preserve some of the wolf instincts and also help us to awaken these almost forgotten instincts.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Alja,
    Absolutely technololgy is part of the solution. Perhaps we can look at them as expanding the natural habitat for learning. No longer are we caged in our classrooms. These technologies give us more room to roam – globally; and as you say, they are “more participatory and encourage creativity”.

  3. Pete, you seem to have a knack of using metaphor that gets to the heart of the matter. I use Monty Roberts as a personal mentor and his concept of JoinUp in my classroom. Check him out. This year has been one of deep discovery in my teaching and blogging has been a way to explore new levels of learning/teaching. I am in the process of developing a “What do you want to learn today” day in my class. It will be a whole day of exploring a subject the students select. I is amazing when I asked the students what did they want to learn, many had never been asked or had no concept of being in charge of their own learning.

  4. You are right on Pete. I think it is instructive to remember that for hundreds of thousands of years children learned, not in school, but by doing. Schooling is a relatively new phenomenon that has served to curtail curiosity rather than develop that trait present in all children (and adults as well). What is even more amazing is that we know what to do to keep children curious–but that knowledge is frowned upon by ‘traditional’ educators and politicians that favor laws that reduce learning to a test score. The frightening legacy of the Bush administration may be that through NCLB an entire generation of American children may be lost to rational thought. I worry about that.

  5. Roger,
    Not to despair. We are on the verge of a huge transformation. The changes of the ’60’s were born in the straight laced ’50’s. The ‘beat generation’ moved from a small group of artists to a cultural wave of free speech, civil rights, women’s rights, and living with purpose.

  6. A wonderful, insightful post. Let’s hope that all the good that our 2.0 world has to offer will feed the natural curiosity of our children ‘within’ the school system!

  7. Yep, Pete you are right (I think). I’m not sure we can compare the Bush years with the 50’s but maybe there is a connection. The same rampant paranoia and faux patriotism found in the McCarthy rants against those damned commies and the HUAC, and the blacklist, Vietnam and so much more. People needed a wake up call in the 60’s and it came in the person of Jack Kennedy–even as he was a contributor to the problem. I don’t see anyone on the horizon that can politically motivate as he did–except, perhaps, Obama. But, believe is the operative word here. Things can’t get too much worse.

  8. Hi Pete.
    I read this post a week ago and the metaphor has been running through my mind ever since. I see little kids on the street with wonder in their eye and I see a wolf! It is great!
    I think that adults need to re-naturalize our drive to learn also. Children learn from us not what we tell them but what we do.
    I sometimes find myself feeling like a wolf of learning. It feels great. It happens in the library sometimes. Or sometimes walking on the street while taking photos. Or sometimes on a hike. There is a drive to see, touch, listen, smell and even taste. The world is beautiful in these moments.
    When I was doing my practicum for teacher’s college, I sometimes lost this ability to get excited about learning because I was so intent on teaching. But I guess I’m coming around to see that teaching and learning are the same thing and cannot be divided. To be a good teacher and to bring out the “wolves”, I too have to be a “wolf” of learning.
    Thanks for the great way of looking at things.

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