Facing My Fears About Learning

Brenda Rothman


I have this image in my head whenever anyone says “learning.” Learning means a teacher standing in front of students, who are sitting at desks, listening quietly to the teacher talk facts, figures, and concepts. Anytime I say “learning,” I think “academics,” by which I mean “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic.” ‘Cause I’m a product of that kind of learning.  From elementary to college to law school, learning was sitting in a room with a large group of people and memorizing. Jeez, the number of things I’ve memorized, the number of meaningless mnemonics.  

That’s why I think that the only way a child learns is from school, from an adult telling them facts.  But that means a child is incapable of discovering something on his own. That he can’t explore and figure things out without an adult telling him to do so or telling him what it means. Do I think children are slow? Or completely incurious? I must think that adults are the only source of knowledge, that we download to kids like they’re empty iPads without apps.    

Or is it more personal? Do I think it’s my child’s problem? That because of his challenges, he is incapable of learning without a lot of prodding, pushing, repeating and repeating? I don’t think I could take much of that kind of “learning.” Is my opinion that low about my son’s abilities, his curiosity? I must think that what schools say is important about the world, development, and success in life is really the right answer, the only answer. What if it isn’t?

My child doesn’t learn best from adults talking at him. He learns from the world. If he asked you, “what noise does a deer make,” what would you say? I told him that a deer doesn’t make a noise. But Jack discovered that they do make noises, breathy, huffing snirks and snorts. He learned deer from deer — what they smell like, look like, feel like, what their poo looks like, what they eat — from his own experience, not from me. By going out in the world and touching, feeling, holding, watching, listening.

And he doesn’t do a whole lot of learning sitting still and listening. He’s a physical objects kinda guy.  The minute we finish reading a book, he’s up to get a three-dimensional version of what we were reading about. He wants to build it, make it move, move around in it. He goes from 2-D to 3-D and that’s how he learns, really absorbs the idea and makes it his own. We’ve built a cemetery, gift shop, ancient Egypt, the Wild West, the White House, and a bird house.


Adults are not the keepers of knowledge. I need to get out of my child’s way and let him learn — in his own way, his own time, his own interests.

I’m still figuring out how to support him as he learns — like not correcting his every mistake. As if he can’t learn if I don’t tell him everything he’s doing wrong. He really needs a safe place to make mistakes and make lots of them. Every time he says, “The General is a gas engine,” and I say, “For real, it’s a steam engine.” he sighs at me. Can’t I just let it go? He knows. Or he’ll figure it out. Let him play around with ideas.

I also have to stop myself from asking teacher questions. ‘Cause Jack already knows how to combat that. Anytime anyone asks him, “Do you know what blank means?,” he says, “No.” Even when he knows. Especially when he knows. ‘Cause he’s not playing that game. He’s not here to show you what he knows or to be taught anything. He wants to learn it his way.

Besides, the things that have stuck with me the most from my education are not the whats, the memorized things, but the how — how to learn. How to question, analyze, think critically, hunt down the sources, consider two sides, find more than one answer. To be persistent, objective, consistent. To discover my own biases. To be open to new ideas. To use my strengths and figure out alternatives for my weaknesses. To be curious. To find the things that empassion me, that make me want to keep reading about them, keep investigating, keep learning.

Kinda like being a reporter. With a tweed hat. Or an adventurer. With fur boots.   

The passion, the curiosity, the how of learning — those aren’t confined to school. They don’t come from memorizing. They merely need the chance to flourish, in a safe environment without fear or pressure, from people who open up the world and say, Wow, will you look at that.

That’s it. Exactly. Not the schools, the degrees, the prestigious jobs.  If I can stop being afraid of what he’s not learning, of what other kids are studying, of what schools they’re getting into, what colleges.  If I can keep the “wow, will you look at that” spark in him, the passion, curiosity, openness that makes him want to keep finding out things.

That’s what I need to remember. Learning is not a teacher lecturing. Learning is not who got into the best school. Learning is a kid saying, Wow, will you look at that.

That’s not gonna stop me from the twinges every once in a while. I’ll hear about a friend’s child and my mind will scuttle to the dark corners. My child’s not doing that, it will whisper. My child’s not in school, not at grade level, not writing, not reading yet, not reading yet, not reading yet.  

And I will have to sit my mind down in a chair and repeat firmly, “Learning is not who got into the best school, who gets the best grades, or the second- or third-best.  Learning does not have a grade-level.”

And then I will lean down and whisper, “Learning is here with you now.  Learning is following what he loves.”


A version of this essay was published at mamabegood.blogspot.com.