May 19, 2024
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What Does Al Pi Darko Really Mean?

(Courtesy of Da’ehu) We all want to create the best learning environment for our children. But without understanding how children process their environment in order to learn best from it, we often waste time and resources in our approach. Chanoch lana’ar al pi darko, which literally means “Train the youth according to his way” does not mean that we are to differentiate our lessons according to the learning style of the child. It means that we need to respect the child’s instinctive ability to learn from his environment to become the adult he needs to be. He learned to walk on his own. No one taught him. He learned to talk on his own. No one taught him. He will need to learn patience, focus and grit, yet no one is able to teach him these things. The information and skills that he will learn become internalized via innate processing from within. In other words, he is instinctively capable of learning from his environment. This is the meaning of al pi darko. We influence the learner’s environment but the path must be his.

It is interesting to note that most animals are born with all the instructions they need to instinctively fulfill their roles in their respective communities. Some of the more intelligent animals take up to a couple of years to learn their expected behaviors by instinctively practicing what they observe around them. Hashem had other plans when he designed us. We humans, the superior of the species, need close to another 20 years of a post-natal embryonic period to learn what it means to be human in our society. We, too, are born with the instinct to learn by practicing what we observe around us. This is how we learn to walk and talk and this is how we develop the character we need as adults in our society. This long period of learning by observing and practicing is how we, as a society, are able to progress.

It once happened that European explorers of a remote region of South America happened upon a primitive settlement in Patagonia. The people there were so terrified that they fled their settlement and, in their haste, actually abandoned a newborn infant. That infant, adopted by the explorers, became a modern, European, multi-lingual college graduate. Had the explorers also happened to adopt a newborn puppy, it would not have grown any differently from any other dog that remained in its old community. The dog is the result of the same instincts possessed by its father and grandfather—the psyche of each individual a copy of those before it. Through training, it may become habituated, but its character will not be developed.

The human adult’s knowledge and his character, too, are the result of his learning experience. As such, each child is born with an instinct to learn. This directs him on his path to absorb from his environment whatever he needs to become the adult he is destined to become. It is a human instinct for children and adults alike to desire independence. We seek to understand the world, to make order of it and to impose our will upon it. However, when adults impose their own will and their own sense of order on the child, they repress his instinct to learn and negatively impact the adult he will become. When we dictate that children learn one topic when they want to learn something else or when we tell them to switch to another topic when they’re finally interested or to continue when they’ve had enough, it is like withholding food from them when they are hungry. The result is frustration—intellectual hunger.

At Da’ehu, our approach is to create a rich and structured learning environment full of healthy, developmentally correct choices. Children develop the independence to make those choices. They develop the focus to willingly spend long periods of time on lessons of their choice and they are also willing to attempt difficult lessons knowing they don’t necessarily have to spend a whole period doing it. They develop mastery more quickly and more completely when they own the hands-on process of acquiring academic skills and knowledge from the world around them, and in this way, each child is able to follow his or her own individual path to independence, growth and refinement of character. Our role as educators is to monitor and facilitate that internal process by making sure that the environment contains what he needs when he needs it.

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