Helping Our Kids Become Humanists

By Philip E. Johnson

The classic approach to learning, worldwide and since the beginning of education, has been the general idea of the transfer of information. The younger generation needs to know the facts—everything from how to sharpen a spear point to the multiplication tables to the history of the Civil War. There’s nothing wrong with it–it’s necessary and useful–but increasingly we are realizing that it is not the whole story. First, the world is changing so fast that dramatic change is intra-generational. No longer will what we learn in school serve us for the balance of our lives.

But the classic “I know, you don’t, and I’m going to tell you” is especially inappropriate for more esoteric and value laden concepts. Humanism is an example. Perhaps algebra could be taught with the simple transfer of facts, or even history, but hardly could the behaviors associated with humanism be taught by this sort of indoctrination. Humanism is fluid, complex, values-related, and very personal. (Actually, I have some problems with algebra being taught this way, too! But that’s for another time).

Let’s remember that, as humanist parents, in addition to wanting kids to learn about humanism; we’d like them to become humanists. And that’s a different world. Indoctrination is more or less okay if kids are expected only to remember. But if they are expected to think, indoctrination won‘t do it. Still, becoming and being a thinker and a humanist can be learned, and taught.

Instead of giving them only the answers to remember, even if they are the right answers, we need to help them learn how to learn, to learn the skills and processes and techniques of learning, so that they can apply these skills to any given content, including humanism. The direction needs to be inductive rather than deductive, including the kinds of skills that transcend any given content, and last a lifetime. We need to use educational patterns more closely associated with democracy and involvement, not autocracy and following directions. Kids need to learn how to discover. The “how” of discovery, including creative thinking and problem solving, is, although seriously neglected in most schools, eminently learnable and teachable.

Here’s a simple example: when Susie comes home from third grade, you would normally say, “Hi! What did you learn in school today?” She will probably very briefly tell you. You might follow that with, “Wow, that’s interesting! Tell me, though, how did you learnthat?” This will puzzle her for a while, and the likely answer is something like “Well, the teacher told us.” Fair enough, but a little more gentle questioning might help Susie to think a bit about the how of learning, her own thoughts and feelings associated with learning. A very worthwhile process!

A more complex example: some years ago, I was part of a development team for a sixth grade science program. We were much more interested in the kids becoming scientists, than in merely having them learn about science. One of the parts of the curriculum was dealing with electricity, particularly Ohm’s law, which describes the relationship of voltage, current, and resistance. It’s basic to all electricity. The class started by providing each child with a flashlight battery, a bulb, and a couple of pieces of wire. Then they were asked to see if they could make the bulb light. You can imagine the fun and excitement that was generated. After a few minutes one child would get it to work, and then be able to help someone else. After a time all of them were complete, and everyone seemed to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then a discussion followed in which the kids were helped to remember what they did, what did not work to get the bulb to light, and what did work. Again, lots of analysis grounded in their own experience with the materials. Then the teacher would help the children to develop some generalizations from those experiences. They could even speculate a bit about what electricity is, and draw parallels with more familiar issues, like the flow of water in pipes.

The crucial part of this, of course, is the processing part—moving from experience to analysis to generalizations. The teacher was thus functioning entirely as a facilitator of the learning, not as an expert in electricity, not simply telling the children facts. The source of the content was the kids’ own experiences. That process is inductive reasoning, and the very basis of much of our learning. And the skill of the analysis of one’s own experiences and thus the development of generalizations is transcendent; it can be applied to many other issues in addition to electricity. Most notably, this sort of learning, consistent with democracy and involvement, helps kids to be comfortable with issues of logic, reasoning, and empiricism. These skills are the tools of creative thinking, problem solving, and science. They help children – and all of us – learn to believe in the natural rather than supernatural, to believe in themselves. That is what humanism is all about.

So we all need to understand and practice helping our kids with the processes of learning; helping them to come up with their own answers. If we teach the processes properly, the kids can be pretty much responsible for their own acquisition of the content. They will become humanists, using and developing their own skills, rather than being indoctrinated.

Philip E. (Ed) Johnson has been a teacher for many years–from graduate programs to the elementary school level. He holds a Ph.D.  degree in education and has been an elementary school principal and faculty development director at the college level. He is the author of Fifty Nifty Ways to Help Your Child Become a Better Learner and writes for his blog