Ask Dr. Blank: What would the ideal learning environment, free of any constraints, look like?

The phrase “free of any constraints” brought me back to my college days when in philosophy class we discussed the famous French philosopher Rousseau and his views about the inherent goodness of children. Basically he believed that children will develop best if they have no other guide than their own reason. In other words, the goal was to bring  children as near to nature as possible because “everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Maker of the world but degenerates once it gets into the hands of man.” Others, such as the poet Wordsworth, held similar views. He saw childhood as a moment where purity and honesty can be released into the world.

The idea that children can, and should, play a major role in their learning is important. It took many centuries for it to develop. At the same time, it is not realistic to think of environments free of any constraints.  Effective learning requires structure and structure automatically entails constraints.  For example, effective learning requires some level of diligence which in turn necessitates practice and repetition. In a tremendously motivated individual, that practice may come automatically as the person strives for better and better performance. But that level of motivation is rare. So it is important for a caring adult to structure situations to ensure that it takes place. In my experience, in this age when children are accustomed to changing their input every few seconds, diligence is a vanishing skill.

In general, rather than thinking about the removal of all constraints, it seems better to think of providing opportunities for exploration in an environment that offers productive constraints.  To achieve this, we need well-informed parents who understand the range of experiences (opportunities) that are most productive for children and who are comfortable in guiding and directing their children to explore those opportunities. These should cover all major areas of development—language, mathematics, spatial relations, music, dance, sports, art, etc.  A fine balance is needed between opportunities and guidance and it requires considerable planning and effort.  The end result, however, makes it all worthwhile.

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Marion Blank

Marion Blank

Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned psychologist and expert on the development of literacy and language in children as well as the creator of the “Six Skill Integrated Method” for teaching children to read. Prior to creating the Reading Kingdom online literacy program, she created and directed the Light on Literacy Program at Columbia University. She has authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles and books and developed numerous award winning teaching and assessment programs. Dr. Blank is also a recipient of the Upton Sinclair Award which honors individuals who have made a significant contribution to education.
Marion Blank