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If Children Educate Themselves, What Do We Do?
September 7, 2023
Our brains are built to benefit from play no matter what our age.
-Theresa A. Kestly, Contemporary American psychologist

“When I say that children are biologically designed to educate themselves, I mean they are born with certain instinctive drives shaped, over eons, by natural selection to serve the purpose of education,” writes author and educational philosopher Peter Gray, who names these six drives:

  • Curiosity: The drive to explore and understand.
  • Playfulness: The drive to practice and create.
  • Communicativeness: The drive to know what others know and share what you know
  • Willfulness: The drive to take charge of one’s own life.
  • Planfulness: The drive to think about and plan for the future.
  • The desire to grow up.

In the Exchange Reflections “Nurturing Thinkers, Explorers and Innovators,” Laura Mickey shares these implications for teaching:

“How we ‘teach’ young children may provide information about what we already know or it may stimulate curiosity. I encourage us to do more than ask children to repeat the information we have given; let’s do more than have them sit on a square without talking or fidgeting.”

Gray’s six drives dovetail well with Mickey’s conceptualization of the teacher-child partnership:

  • The educator’s role is to find out what the children want to know.
  • The child is the primary agent in learning.
  • The teacher’s role is to uncover the questions and be a co-learner.
  • The child’s role is to be active and questioning.


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Comments (4)

Displaying All 4 Comments
Kirsten Haugen · September 07, 2023
Eugene, OR, United States

Aparna, Monica and Francis, you are each so articulate in adding to the conversation! May I remind you all that we welcome submissions to the magazine - and now, also, the Hub. I think each of you could write a fantastic article related to this, and of course Francis has already written several articles for us.
Learn more about writing for Exchange:
And thank you!

Francis Wardle · September 07, 2023
University of Phoenix/ Red Rocks Community College
Denver, Colorado, United States

I would add a seventh drive: social connection. Children seem programed to make friends and interact with other children. In fact, J. Bruner believes that communication - i.e., language - is a direct result of this desire. Regarding the role of the teacher, I think a central role is to engage in one or more of these drives with a child to scaffold higher-order thinking.

Monica Jackson · September 07, 2023
N Springfield, Virginia, United States

Nurturing Thinkers, Explorers, and Innovators: Scaffolding Concept Development with Gray's Six Drives

In pursuing nurturing young thinkers, explorers, and innovators, it is essential to understand the intricate dynamics of the teacher-child partnership. Building on the foundation that the teacher's role is to scaffold a child's concept development with an awareness of how their universe works. This approach allows us to foster an environment where children actively participate in their learning journey. Some vital principles encapsulate this collaborative process—emphasizing, recognizing, and supporting the child's natural curiosity and agency in their learning journey. By actively participating as co-learners and fostering an environment of active inquiry, educators can guide children in developing a deep understanding of how their universe works, setting the stage for a lifetime of intellectual exploration and innovation.

Aparna Atreya · September 07, 2023
Neev Early Years
Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Yes, indeed! Children are designed to educate themselves. As adults we have the responsibility to create those situations for children to thrive on. The role of the educator also expands in creating those spaces where children become the drivers of their own learning, bringing the attention to the role of the environments as the 3rd teacher.

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