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Education or learning?

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Education is different from learning. Children are programmed to learn and develop: that is the work of childhood and youth. Education institutionalises that work. We spend many hours thinking about our children’s education, but little time actually thinking about our children’s learning.

When I refer to education, I am talking about the formal processes of learning, and the systems we’ve developed to facilitate what we think children need to learn to operate in our society. But, learning is a more intuitive process. We all participate in learning, formally and informally, in our day-to-day lives. Learning supports the ongoing development from infancy to adulthood. It is crucial. This is why education is the focus of so much contentious debate.

The debates frequently operate within the narrow framework of the current education system. Instead of addressing broader systemic issues like how schools are structured and whether they fit the needs of modern students, we continue to argue over the type of history taught or which teaching style is best. Many education experts frequently debate how children should be taught to read, but spend little time asking children what they’d like to learn to read, or what stories interest them most and what those stories will teach them.


Our education systems belong to adults. And, our education system is shaped by the adult world. A world that is competitive, economically focused and achievement-driven. One parent gravely told me, “Education is a race where the highest mark wins”. But what impact does that philosophy have on learning? What does that tell children about their role in the learning process?

Instead of celebrating and experiencing the learning process, it prepares them for a world of winners and losers. And they know that if they don’t excel academically or athletically, they will likely exist in the latter category.

We regularly fail to acknowledge that children’s learning is not limited to a classroom. In fact, academic or not, all children learn many things outside the education system. The danger in limiting the learning process to the classroom is that much of children’s learning actually takes place outside the education system. And when too much emphasis is placed on success within the education system, children’s enthusiasm and confidence for learning in all facets of life can be dampened or destroyed.

Of course, the solution isn’t to try and obliterate competition. This is just another aspect of life children must learn. They do need to know how to participate and accept that they will not always be the best in everything. Our idolisation of children as perfect and successful can place too much pressure to succeed upon them, or create expectations in adulthood where the world doesn’t hand out gold stars quite as freely.

We don’t have a broad and diverse education system where all subjects have equal value, where children are encouraged to explore and uncover what they enjoy learning and where their natural skill sets lie. Instead, we reinforce the value of “hard” sciences over “soft” humanities. Maths has more value than drama and a low physics score can obtain a better result than a high home economics score. These subjects are weighted to determine the places in the final race: Year 12 results that inform university course offers. Of course, among students’ peer groups, they know there is a difference between the subjects chosen by “smart” and “dumb” kids. The blows to the ego start here.

To date, our approach to this out-of-balance equation is to head in the opposite direction, and create a classroom where everyone gets a gold star for effort. Don Edgar refers to this approach as “self-esteem … elevated to the level of dogma”.


Just as with childcare, we think we are doing the right thing by children. It isn’t necessarily so. We have based our systems on ideas of childhood and youth that don’t fit the speed and complexity of our modern world. Rather than strive for perfection or success in children, we should be fostering flexibility and adaptability. We should give them the skills to keep learning throughout life. Instead, we jump between images of childhood that can only confuse developing minds.

Our education system is based on expectations of children and young people. Each year, a new set of goals and required knowledge is placed before students. For those that have not been supported to meet these goals in previous years, it is even more challenging.

We are left with students who progress with their peers, but whose learning is stunted because they haven’t had the chance to learn everything required to progress to the next level of learning. How can you do algebra if you haven’t fully grasped multiplication yet? So rather than having their learning and development supported within the class, those students are singled out and grouped together, creating an understanding among them that they are different, or in the language of the playground, “dumb”.

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This is an extract from Idolising Children.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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