Nick Heap

Facilitator of change and learning, Practical Developmental Ideas (self employed)

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In our present chaos, we need the enthusiasm, ability to learn and try things that children have naturally. Can we learn these from them?

We are all going through a period of rapid, unpredictable and sometimes chaotic change. Nothing is certain any more. We need to be adaptable, flexible, confident, resourceful and willing and able to learn and try new things in order to cope with this environment. It would also be great if doing so was fun and personally rewarding.

The only people who have these qualities in abundance everywhere are very young children. (This is marvellously shown in Sugata Mitra's talk.) Education almost everywhere seems to be about pumping adult knowledge and skills into children. I think the demands of the 21'st century requires us do the opposite as well. We adults need to learn from children, so we can face our challenges with the joy, enthusiasm and confidence they show naturally.

One simple way to start might be to notice how young children go about learning. We could find out what the best conditions are to support this. Some brave adults to immerse themselves in a similar environment and try and emulate their young role models.

This is just one slightly wacky idea. I would be interested to learn if these thoughts make sense to you and if you have any other ways we could take this further.

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    Feb 3 2013: I don't think that it's such a wacky idea. I have learned so much from my daughter.
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      Feb 3 2013: Hi Grace

      Thanks for your support

      I would love to know what you have learned from your (young) daughter. Mine is 41 so I don't have such up to date information as you. I think your stories would make a very valuable contribution to this conversation.

      Best wishes,

  • Jan 30 2013: "The purpose of education is to replace the empty mind with a curious one"
    I can't take credit for this idea and don't remember where i took it , but i am on board with this vision.
    I agree with you that we shouldn't " pump adult knowledge and skills into children " and maybe we should try to get rid of our assumptions that outlived their usefulness.
    What , actually, do we know ?
    You may check out here, it's only slightly hyperbolic. if at all :)
    Maybe we'd better open our mind to the great ' who knows' and at least sometimes try to experience the world as children do ?
    It sounds like impossible endeavour, but what we need is the sense of wonder and there is no problem with it, if you are truly attentive to nature. It is wonderful , it is magic !
    OK, let's come down to the earth . What are the primary data for a child ? Colour taste shape , texture, sound ... heat and cold... Do we like it or not it brings the idea of the moment, the felt moment of experience, ' now '
    I don’t see the need to believe or disbelieve to proclaim this true or untrue,but it is useful at this stage for understanding the difference between our adult mental life and child pre knowledge way of exploring the world.
    Thanks for asking ! :)
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    Jan 28 2013: I'm not sure, Nick, I think I learn more effectively now at age 52 than I did as a child. For one thing, I'm more aware of the power of specificity, of asking a really specific question.

    I believe I was a very mature child. If I look back in my imagination, I don't think I learned or thought terribly differently as a child from how I do now. But I have accrued more information and techniques. Can you remember being a child? Do you remember it as being noticeably different from how you are now.
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      Jan 29 2013: That is an interesting observation, Greg. I am no less playful now than I was as a child, but I have much greater capacity to think critically, to learn complex things quickly and well, to perceive a range of possible views and angles, and to be creative and interdisciplinary than I did then.
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      Jan 29 2013: That said, I know some adults do develop ideas of what it means to be disciplined or professional that cause them to constrain their possible playfulness. Here is a story that taught me this.

      One thing I did professionally for many years is to teach and plan curriculum for adolescents and teens considered to be prodigiously gifted. Some kids in this population tend to be perfectionists and to be extremely serious. I was doing a sort of advisory regularly for a group of twenty of them and when this issue of perfectionism arose, I said something to the effect that once you are no longer an adolescent- when you are an older person like I am, you don't worry about things like making a fool of yourself, being playful, experimenting with things, making a mess... (Kids love these dimensions in a teacher, of course).

      When I came home and described the session to my then high school-aged daughter, she said, "No, Mom. Adults usually worry more about those kind of things than teens. It's only YOU who doesn't worry about that stuff."

      My teenaged son says that I am only "technically a grown-up."

      So maybe I don't have good insight into this issue after all.
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        Feb 7 2013: What I'd like to know, Fritzie, is if you take people who are inhibited now, were they inhibited as kids? For example, I played a certain amount of pretend as a kid, and I still do it now as an adult. I have a friend who is rather inhibited, probably couldn't play pretend now as an adult. I didn't know him as a child, I wonder if he was inhibited then?
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          Feb 8 2013: Inhibition is partly a function of inate disposition or personality and partly related to environment. People will be more inhibited if they are likely to get punished for undisciplined behaviors, for example.

          Your example raises something a little different though. What inhibition looks like in an adult might be different than inhibition in a child. It's more typical for little kids to run through the park pretending to be tigers than for adults to do that. At least in the US, for a kid not to do that sort of thing might be considered unusual.
          An adult who doesn't do that isn't necessarily inhibited.

          People can learn to be less inhibited, though.
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    Jan 28 2013: It's not a wacky idea. And it is a very popular one! You might take interest in the TED talks we have about play and how even businesses have for some years now been building environments to encourage and support playfulness into their spaces.

    This is my favorite one, but we have twelve right now under the tag "play."
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      Jan 30 2013: Hi Fritzie

      Thanks for your support and interest in this conversation. I enjoyed the TED talk about Serious Play you referred me to.

      I think you children are very fortunate to have a Mom who is "Only technically a grown-up"

      Best wishes,


      I have mentioned the Sudbury Valley School in a reply above. I think you'll find it fascinating.
  • Feb 11 2013: Edward Long’s comment about the differences of adult and children’s (first world) world’s is simple and to the point. However, the meaningful take-aways adults can obtain by observing children is another matter. How do we adults, in this fast-paced world that’s going faster and requiring more of each of us, keep pace? And to that, how do we expect today’s children to maintain that pace, or more accurately, keep up with the trend, the trajectory of demands on tomorrow’s adults?

    One notion my wife and I had was to observe autism and ADHD from a different point of view. What if, we postulated, children who were diagnosed with ADHD were not afflicted but rather reacting to stimuli? Is it at all possible that ADHD-type symptoms are a reaction to a high amount of external stimulation? There is a great deal of noise in the world, more sights and sounds specifically and intentionally designed to attract and capture human attention. How does this effect (or would be affect?) minds of children and infants? Often, if not always, seems that a kid with ADHD is also described as very bright and very intelligent. Could it be a positive trait that the human mind acquires to prepare it for a mutli-tasking adulthood? If so, could that change adult behavior regarding such symptoms? Granted it is extremely tiring to manage and care for hyper-active children. But, maybe a different view is needed. Maybe this is the evolutionary path.
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    Jan 30 2013: Here is a story to illustrate how extraordinary children are. An English Unilever manager, with his wife and child were moved very frequently by the company. They decided to send their son to local kindergarten's rather than to the one's run by the company, where English was spoken.

    Their son was soon happily chatting with new friends in their language. By the time he was six he was fluent in FIVE languages.

    This just makes me think that we have a lot to learn from children about how to learn. We also have a lot to learn about how to create the conditions so children can keep on learning as fast as they do when they are very young.

    As the world gets more crowded and more interconnected, we have more to manage and learning fast is crucial.
  • Jan 30 2013: "Education almost everywhere seems to be about pumping adult knowledge and skills into children."

    This has always been the role of education, teaching children how to survive and prosper when they grow up. To some extent, this will always have negative side effects. Some people think that education stifles creativity. Of course it does; another word for an academic subject is discipline, which is the opposite of play.

    Changing this core purpose of education, even slightly, will also have negative side effects.

    This is not a matter of "should". This is just a choice. What do we want education to accomplish?

    Until we have a clear answer to that question, with specific measurable objectives, our education system, and the adults it produces, will continue to seem inadequate. Since we all seem to agree that educated adults should be creative and curious, perhaps we should start by developing measures for creativity and curiosity. In this fast changing world, we also need a measure for adaptability.

    These ideas are not crazy, but they are very difficult to apply. It is perhaps impossible to have a school system that produces both highly disciplined technicians and highly creative designers. We may need multiple school systems, each with a different set of objectives.
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      Jan 30 2013: Hi Barry

      I have been fascinated by the Sudbury Valley School recently. The book about it "Free at Last" is utterly inspiring. This school has no curriculum and children from 4 to 18 entirely follow their own interests. They have no exams and no grades. None the less 80% of them go to the college of their first choice. They report that children don't naturally study easy things when they are left to themselves, they deliberately go for things that are personally challenging. This school turns all the assumptions most of us have about education on their heads. You can get the book via the website. I couldn't put it down!

      I agree we need a debate about what education is for. It would make a great subject for a a TED conversation. Do you fancy starting one?
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    Jan 30 2013: I am not sure I know what you are talking about because I never stopped learning like a child. It is the system of sit at your desk, do not speak, raise your hand, walk on the right side of the hallway.. that smacks that out of people.

    I didn't listen then either.
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    Jan 29 2013: A first-world child is not burdened with the cares of survival. They have a whole village looking-out for their welfare. They have freedom to recreate, to imagine, to pretend and to frolic in play. Such conditions do not exist in the adult's world. If adults act childishly they fail. The world of children and the world of adults are controlled by very different rules. I agree it is delightful and therapeutic to be carefree like a child on occasion, but it cannot replace ongoing responsibility in the grown-up world.
  • Jan 29 2013: Isn't this called beginners mind in zen?