Kids Can Learn Without Instruction

"It may be the case that [some American] children give up control of their attention when it's always managed by an adult," say some experts.


Don't show this to your kids, because they might cry. But guess how much time children in "traditional societies"—indigenous groups pretty much off the grid—spend in direct instruction, the way American kids do in school?

About 90 seconds a day.

University of Utah anthropologist Karen Leslie Kramer, who has spent 30 years studying Maya villagers in the Yucatan and Pume hunter-gatherers in South America, came up with that estimate. "The opportunities for learning are -everywhere," Kramer says. "It doesn't have to be in a formal environment. Kids are like sponges—they just absorb what's around them."

Kids in traditional societies spend plenty of time playing, away from the adults. But they are also often among the grown-ups, watching what they do, eavesdropping, and helping out.

Then they take that information and use it to build skills such as weaving. "In many traditional societies," Kramer says, "one of the important things to learn is how to weave, because without plastic, we rely on [woven] containers for so much of what we do."

How do kids learn weaving techniques? "They go to the trash dump where baskets have been discarded, and they take them apart the way young boys learned about cars or radios," Kramer says. "And then they figure out how they go back together again. When they're a little older and weaving with their mothers, their mother might say, 'You'd be better off doing it like this.' But in terms of moms sitting down formally and saying, 'OK, step by step, here is how to make a basket'—I have not observed that."

David F. Lancy, author of The Anthropology of Childhood, says the chores and skills that traditional-society kids are mastering require a lot of "persistence, practice, and watching others." But the children "are very much on their own," he explains. "If they go to an adult and say, 'I need help with this,' the adult will send them packing: 'Go away. I'm busy.'" Any teaching happens on the spur of the moment, when adults see the kid hit a speed bump.

What motivates kids to learn anything at all, with no teachers, grades, or trophies? "Once a kid can walk, they're out the door and down the street," Kramer says. They're drawn by the excitement of being with other kids, especially the ones a little older than them. It is the desire to be like those awesome big kids that motivates the younger ones, the same way you may have been motivated to learn swimming (or swearing) to be like your older sibling. A lot of us in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies have forgotten how much kids learn from other kids, which is every bit as important as learning from an "official" teacher.

"Humans have been incredibly successful as a species," Kramer says, "which is in some ways remarkable, because we go through these demographic bottlenecks several times in our history when there were very few humans and we could have gone extinct. Other species did." Ours didn't, thanks to young people learning so efficiently and constantly.

Our modern culture may be stunting this superpower. In one famous experiment, researchers brought pair after pair of Guatemalan Maya kids, ages 5 to 11, into a room and told Kid 2, "I'm going to teach Kid 1 how to use this toy. Then, when it's your turn, I'll show you how to do something else." Researchers were actually studying how much attention Kid 2 paid when not being directly instructed.

The Maya kids paid lots of attention. Most of them learned the lesson that was not being taught to them. But when the experiment was done in California, the kids zoned out until the adult was directly addressing them.

One of the researchers, University of California, Santa Cruz, psychologist Barbara Rogoff, told NPR the Maya kids clearly were alert to the world, paying attention to whatever they could see and learn, "instead of always depending on adults to tell them what to pay attention to." She added, "It may be the case that [some American] children give up control of their attention when it's always managed by an adult."

If we want our kids growing up smart, alert, and adaptable, they need chances to learn the old-fashioned way. That means giving them more free time with other kids of all ages.