Sponge, Computer or incomprehensible blob of amazingness?

Two metaphors that have evolved to reflect the workings of the human mind are “a child’s brain is like a sponge” and “the brain is like a computer.” Although well-intentioned, the limitations of these models have resulted in educational practices that fail to address the true nature of how children learn, and subsequently lend themselves to substandard teaching models that short-change children and society as a whole.

The sponge metaphor reflects the impressive amount of things children are able to memorize, or (in sponge terminology) to absorb. Small children are known to repeat fragments of conversations, confront their parents on perceived inconsistencies and even ask strangers inappropriate questions, in an effort to understand and translate their world into words and memorize it. By age three, a child has learned to communicate in their native language, having memorized thousands of words, hand gestures and vocal inflections. They are able to name everything in their environment, ask questions and, once they have understanding, think of new questions based on new information.

Is a child's brain like a sponge?

A child's brain is NOT like a sponge.

Early neurological research compared the neurons and synapses of the human brain to that of a microchip, saying that the human brain functions more like a computer than a sponge. Bits of knowledge are stored in the brain, much like files are stored in a computer’s database. Brain users, like computer users, can respond to a mental query by “searching the database,” or thinking. The metaphor was a helpful way to illustrate the way humans access information by recalling at will, much like how a computer accesses files.

Educators embraced the computer model. In addition to the fact that it was supported by the latest scientific research, it reflected Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s cognitive stages theory, by implying that new information and ideas could “reprogram” the brain into using new thought patterns, built upon old ones. When new knowledge is attained, it is compared to the current body of knowledge, then rejected or filed away for later recall.

The limitations of this model are unfortunate, however. Computers don’t decide what information to save or reject, they save everything – imagine how much fun that would be, if it were true. But our minds are not like computers. Computation occurs in response to specific queries, executed by a user, with a goal that the computer itself has no knowledge of. Also, during periods of inactivity a computer simply hums along, waiting for instructions. By contrast, humans are the natural operator of their own minds and, unlike a computer, continue to “work” without being prompted.

Modern schooling has been around for only a hundred years or so. It became popular during the industrial revolution, as a place for people to send their kids while they worked in factories. During this time, children’s brains were viewed as sponge-like. Massive public education efforts exploded in the United States during the mid 1900′s, based on the Prussian model of education, developed under the guidance of Adolph Hitler, whose intentions may not have been pure. Hitler once said, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Schools were to designed churn out obedient, well-behaved, patriotic children. Hitler’s administration saw children as sponges that needed to be filled with thoughts that served the government.

The Prussian model of educating children by filling their brains began to change in the US after the 1950’s. Even before computers were popularized, educational practices like those of Maria Montessori, Charlotte Mason and Rudolph Steiner proposed that the cultural and social disorders of modern society were due to an authoritarian education system that seated children in little rows and had them memorize and chant arbitrary facts (rote memorization). These educators believed that children should be surrounded, or programmed, by objects of beauty like the natural world, classical music and fine textiles. Waldorf and Montessori schools provide very controlled environments, much like a computer’s operating system,albeit disguised in soft fabrics, colors and natural elements.

Is a child's brain like a computer?

A child's brain is NOT like a computer

While the computer metaphor can lead to a more sensory-balanced pedagogy, it’s still flawed because it fails to consider that humans are “pre-programmed” for learning from their surroundings. Educational reformer John Holt once said “Birds fly, fish swim and humans learn.” Before entering institutionalized education, children are motivated by pleasure. The joy of making sounds, combined with the desire to communicate results in the development of oral language skills. The joy of movement and the desire to propel oneself leads to crawling, then walking. Children learn these things in an environment where the adults in their life are simply going about their business, not forcing them to endure lessons in the matter.

At 5 or 6, modern children enter kindergarten and, in addition to being systematically programmed with teeny facts about reading, they’re also judged on their performance, so that learning to read becomes just as important as performing well. This computer-like programming fails to impress upon children the inherent joy of escaping into a novel. Such knowledge can only come from experience. Joy cannot be taught; it must be experienced. Humans are born – driven by inner curiosity and insatiable desire – to explore the world joyfully, and not to be programmed by adults who can’t even imagine what the world will be like in twenty more years.

It’s time to do away with educational theories that minimize children’s potential by relying on metaphors that discount the importance of natural motivation. The most impressive mental feats (primary language and mobility) occur outside of formal education, and are driven by pleasure, not force. Filling children with facts or attempting to influence thought patterns hasn’t resulted in a more intelligent society. By comparison, we have a culture of people who are in debt, unhappy, obese, and more likely to find pleasure in reality television than a book. Furthermore, our society is dependent to the extent that the average citizen is unable to grow their own foods, create their own housing or sew a button. What kind of education ignores humanity’s basic needs for food and shelter in this way?

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