May 202013

Last night I watched a Ted talk by Jacob Barnett, a 13-year-old genius with Asperger’s.

His message? “Forget what you know.” “Stop learning and start thinking.” And, while Jacob’s story begins with how the educational and diagnostic systems that we have in our society were not able to meet his needs because he was working on quantum physics at the age of 3, his message still settled with me as, well, nothing short of genius.

The system didn’t work for him because he didn’t think like the system thinks. The system teaches us to learn things, in a certain way, for a certain goal, so that we can produce certain behaviors or outcomes and we can obtain a certain set of already agreed upon facts. Learning is prescribed and our measurement of learning is limited to what we think we want our children to do.

A parent asks, “How do I teach my child to behave in a classroom?” “How do I teach my child to respect authority and not act out?” “How do I teach my child to get along with other children?” “How can I teach my child to share?”

What we are really asking is “How do I get my child to memorize and follow the rules of engagement in specific and defined situations so that they don’t cause trouble?”

But memorizing behavioral standards or facts doesn’t lead to an inherent desire to behave a certain way.

“Stop learning and start thinking.”

What if, as parents, we adopted this as our goal?

I often hear the comparison between parenting and coaching. Coaching is clearly teaching. Last week I watched as a group of four-year-olds tried to play T-ball. The coach directed and guided and helped each kid get around the bases, hit the ball and catch the ball. And most of the kids had a half glazed, mostly confused look on their faces that said, “Sure, I can run to that base over there, but I have no idea why!” They were memorizing, or learning, the “rules” of the game, but they weren’t “thinking” about it.

Thinking is critical. It is creative. It is discovery. It is flexible and exploratory and leads to more ideas and it has no bounds. It leads to more thought. It comes from within us. We own it.

Learning is finite. It is wrong and right. It is given to us by someone else. It is not ours to own.

Jason Barnett is a genius. Maybe he doesn’t really need to “learn” anything. For most of us though, there is clearly a place for learning. But maybe most of us don’t get the opportunity to embrace “thinking” as much as we need to. And maybe if we can start with thinking, we can learn what we need to get where we want to go, rather than go where we can based on what we learn. There is a big difference.


So what would this look like, if we stopped focusing on learning and started focusing on thinking?

1)   We would coach less, narrate more. Coaches tell us how to do something. Narrators help us see the picture of what is happening. Coaches say, “Give the toy to your brother.” Narrators say, “Oh, you grabbed the toy from your brother. You really wanted it. Now he is crying! I wonder how you can work it out?”

2)   We would ask questions rather than give advice. “You’re having a hard time at school. What do you think you need?”

3)   We would pause more. Why? Because pausing gives kids time to think. We have a horrible habit of giving kids way more than they need: more lectures, more reasons, more choices, more advice, more direction. Instead, connect (You’re sad). Pause. Ask (What do you think you need?). Pause. Connect (It’s hard, I know, I have faith in you). Pause. Wonder (I wonder if…). Pause. Repeat. Most importantly, stop. When they start figuring things out on their own, back off and let them learn to think!


Let’s be honest. Most of us will not discover a new type of physics. Most of us will never be able to use our names in the same sentence with Einstein and Newton. But, on the other hand, every baby discovers gravity. Every child tests and retests empathic responses and reciprocal relationship effects. Our brains are built to figure things out. Our hearts are yearning to do it. Sure, learning can lead to good achievement results. But thinking… that leads to, well, just about anything we could imagine.



 Posted by at 8:02 am

  One Response to “Learning Versus Thinking”

  1. “Every day, we rely on the natural genius of our students to navigate the world of ideas. They discuss, play with, think about, and consider ideas. They try, accept, and reject different ideas. They build and test models of the world, and ideas about how to live their own lives. Far from minimizing differences between people, pluralism allows our students to develop into all sorts of different people, and to develop deep respect for one another and those differences.”
    From this weeks featured blog at the Sudbury Valley School website.

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