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Learning From Mother Nature About Teaching Our Children: Ten Simple Truths

6) An effective learning environment must accommodate individual differences. A species is not a uniform entity. Members of a single species often differ profoundly from one another and succeed in different ways. Some of the differences are largely genetically based, others are developmentally flexible early in life but then become relatively fixed, and still others remain flexible throughout life. These points apply to humans even more forcefully than to other species. For example, some children are more resilient than others in harsh environments, a difference that is partly genetically based. In Sweden they are referred to as "dandelion children." Others are less resilient, more like orchids. They suffer in harsh environments but may thrive even better than dandelion children in supportive environments. Evolutionary analyses show how both types of individuals might be maintained in a population, based on different costs and benefits. Some children are bolder than others; some are more or less gregarious; some prefer action while others prefer reflection. Such differences are valuable not just to individuals but to the culture as a whole, which profits from the diversity of interests and abilities. When learning is child-motivated and offers sufficient choices, each person can find the educational niche that best fits his or her personality.

7) Learning is inhibited by fear and anxiety. When individuals of any species are placed in threatening situations, they direct their resources toward immediate self- protection. Open-ended exploration requires safety. To the extent that the educational environment elicits fear, it focuses learning narrowly on escaping or overcoming the fearful situation. Common sources of fear and anxiety in schools include bullying and teasing from other students, stereotypes that classify students as incapable, anxiety associated with testing and grading, and harsh criticism or threats of failure. At best, these forms of fear and anxiety focus learning on a narrow task, such as cramming for an exam. At worst, they paralyze learning altogether.

8) Learning is facilitated by choice and inhibited by coercion. People of all ages, everywhere, cherish their personal freedom. They want to make their own choices and do not gladly submit to others' control. For example, adult workers greatly prefer jobs that give them autonomy to jobs that force them to follow the dictates of a micromanaging boss. Throughout our evolutionary history, decisions forced by others have been far more often for the benefit of the controllers than those being controlled.

One way that our ancestors became so different from other primates is that they found ways to resist domination within their groups, creating a form of guarded egalitarianism that favored cooperation and teamwork. In a deep sense, we are a democratic species. Children are no different from adults in this regard; they resist being told what to do. This does not mean that they should be allowed to behave in unruly ways. Instead, it suggests that they should be allowed to participate in decision-making processes. Given the evidence that participatory governance systems are beneficial in adult organizations, it is surprising how little educational research has tested the value of student participation.

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