Natural Learning

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critical life skills
Since the recent Unschooling conference call that Jerry Michalski put together, I’ve come to realize how much damage schooling does to us, and how essential it is for us to rediscover natural learning, if we hope to make the world a better place. I intend to create a “personal practice guide to unschooling” over the next year, and I’m starting to think what it might contain.

Because the terminology is fraught with misunderstanding, let me start with a few definitions:

  • Unschooling is taking your child, or yourself, out of the school (institutional education) system, and allowing learning to occur more naturally. 
  • Deschooling a society is the dismantling or abandonment of its school systems. The term can also be used in the sense of deschooling oneself — by becoming aware of and unlearning the institutional propaganda of how learning really occurs that we have picked up from our own years in the school system.
  • Home Schooling is an ambiguous term. It often means replicating the school system in the home, with the curriculum and indoctrination of the parents replacing that of employed teachers — really the antithesis of unschooling. But some people use the term to mean unschooling that occurs principally in the home.
  • Natural Learning is my own term for allowing learning to occur naturally, i.e. without structure, goals, timelines, grades, measures, programs, teachers, classrooms, coercion or curricula (think of how foxes learn from their mother).

Many of those whose children are unschooled appreciate that, if you really want your children to learn naturally, you need to first examine your own schooling and how it has affected your view of how learning occurs, and deschool yourself. The paradox is that most of us have no other model — we have at some point come to accept that institutionalized, formal schooling is the only way to learn. And, just as we cannot be “taught how to learn”, my attempt to develop an alternative framework for learning, to share with others trying to deschool themselves, could understandably be seen as both fruitless and ironic.

We have two things going for us: Nature is constantly showing us another, more natural way to learn; and the Internet has provided us with an astonishing amount of unstructured information that requires us to stretch our natural learning muscles to use it effectively.

I had the good fortune to have one year of unschooling during my formative years, which ruined me for subsequent schooled education but which gave me an appreciation for natural learning’s effectiveness, joyfulness and inherent superiority. I know it works. And while many shrug off this kind of learning as something only suited for people with unusual native learning ability and parents willing and able to mentor their children, I think this is defeatism. This defeatism is evidence of the learned helplessness that is inculcated in us in order to perpetuate our ghastly neoliberal education system that, in my opinion, saps children of their natural creativity and capacity for learning. It’s the same defeatism and learned helplessness that prevents most of us from making a living for ourselves in Natural Enterprises — even though we’d be happier and more productive if we did so, and the world would be much better off.

My model for deschooling yourself, my “personal practice guide” for natural learning, will be based on a combination of my own unschooling experience, my observation of how people are using the Internet to learn, and my observation and study of how wild creatures learn.

It will start with the principle that there is no ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to learn — we all learn differently. What’s more, we are constantly learning — taking in, assimilating, filtering, processing, storing and applying information — even when we’re not conscious of it.

Although there are a host of different learning styles, the work of Nancy Dixon and David Kolb suggests that learning generally involves five activities: experiencing, observation, reflection, conceptualization, and application. The richer the experience, and the more competent we are at observation, reflection, conceptualization and application, the more we will learn.

The experience of actually doing something, or at least watching someone who is competent at doing it, is obviously richer than having someone at the front of a classroom tell us about it, or reading about it in a textbook. So one way to rediscover natural learning is to get out of classrooms and away from books and screens and learn something by watching experts, by doing it ourselves, and by practice — the true meaning of apprenticeship. Alas, in our modern world many craftspeople no longer have the time, and are insufficiently accessible, to offer to demonstrate their craft for others to learn. Fortunately, just as young people are inherently curious and delighted to learn, most skilled practitioners are delighted to demonstrate what they do. All we need to do, most of the time, is ask politely and ensure that we aren’t disruptive.

So step one in the process of deschooling yourself is learn something new, not online or in a book or classroom, but through apprenticeship — experience, observe, reflect, conceptualize, apply, and practice it. And as we do that, ask questions, because that is not only critical to learning, it is critical to the craftsperson’s or practitioner’s development of the capacity to demonstrate, an absolutely critical and increasingly rare ability that is essential to natural learning. Don’t look up or design a curriculum for your learning of this new skill. Just go learn. Discover how natural and intuitive it is.

Once we have learned something this way, we can then try learning something online or through reading and research. If we really want to learn it competently, we need to identify a mentor — but not a teacher. The mentor’s role is very similar to the demonstrator’s role in apprenticeship learning — answering questions and acting as a ‘sounding board’. The mentor doesn’t tell you what to learn, or how to learn, or assess how well you’ve learned. That’s the learner’s responsibility. The mentor is responsive and the process is conversational. The mentor is selected by the learner, not assigned to him or her.

I learned this as an advisor to entrepreneurs over many years. My role was to listen, to answer questions and. occasionally, to tell interesting and useful stories, never to tell people what to do or how to do it. I’ve tried to apply the same hands-off, sounding-board approach in my work as a manager, but it was largely unappreciated — most people have been so propagandized and beaten down by the school system and the hierarchical work world that they want to be told what to do and how to do it. They don’t want the responsibility for doing so themselves. They have lost interest in learning, and then lost the capacity to learn.

This learning is (like schooling) a collaborative process, but the roles — learner, demonstrator, mentor — are very different from the roles of “teacher” and “student”. Even as we practice things we are just learning, we are already beginning to exercise all three roles. Others (including demonstrators and mentors) have much to learn from observing us demonstrating our mistakes, and the process of our becoming more competent.

So the key, I think, to natural learning lies in developing capacity in all three roles (learner, demonstrator, and mentor), allowing ourselves more (and more varied and stimulating) first-hand experiences, and becoming more competent at observing, reflecting, conceptualizing, applying and practicing what we’ve learned. In the process, we learn not only new skills and competencies, but about ourselves.

The second great challenge in rediscovering natural learning, it seems to me, is in recognizing the impediments to such learning that our modern dysfunctional society has put in the way of learning. In my earlier study I identified these ten obstacles:

  1. We don’t allow ourselves (and our society doesn’t allow us) enough time for wonder.
  2. Our workplace activities and our home routines are often repetitious and stimulus-poor.
  3. We don’t do anything together anymore.
  4. We get too much of our life experience second-hand (from books & movies, and online).
  5. We suffer from imaginative poverty — we won’t let ourselves imagine, and now we’ve largely forgotten how to imagine.
  6. Our lives are too organized and too scheduled to allow serendipitous experiences and hence serendipitous learning.
  7. In this world full of terrible knowledge and awful realities, we are becoming afraid to learn. We cannot bear too much reality, too much bad news, and we don’t want to accept the awful responsibility that knowing and learning brings with it.
  8. The current institutional schooling system impedes and discourages self-directed and undirected learning.
  9. The media have addicted themselves, and us, to facts rather than meaning.
  10. We have ‘desensitized’ ourselves — we process everything mainly with our left brain, so we no longer really see, really hear, really smell, really taste, really feel.

The workarounds to these ten obstacles are fairly self-evident, I think.

If you’re a natural learner.

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One Response to Natural Learning

  1. T. Greer says:

    Hello! I just stumbled across this blog and am rather intrigued with the process you describe here. I also have a few questions – but first, let me give you a short synopsis of where I am coming from.I am currently a freshmen of a small but prestigious university. I have an intense interest in foreign affairs and history, and (on average) know more about these subjects than do most Americans. Indeed, I created a blog to to discuss international affairs two years ago (while still in high school) that has seen limited success, and I am an active participant in a historian’s reading circle. In addition, I am currently working as a maintenance-man for the University as I desire to learn how to rewire a socket, put together an AC unit, fix a leaky pipe, ect.So in a sense, I buy into the self-education stuff quite a bit – I am a living example of what unstructured learning can do for you.On the flip side, there have been time where I have needed a teacher. An avid fan and practitioner of ball-room dance, I was unable to perform such until I took a formal class in the subject where my instructor drilled me constantly. My instructor was not a “mentor” or a “demonstrator”- and to be quite honest, I do not think I would have learned how to dance if he was. My other objection to unlearning is one of resources. To put it simply, sometimes there are certain resources one needs to understand a subject, and more often than not, these resources need to be used or read in a certain pattern or order to achieve effectiveness. I am reminded of the way in which I learned Hanzi* (the writing system of Chinese. By learning the characters in a systematic fashion I was able to memorize and use them with ease. If I did not use them in the order proscribed by my instructor, my grasp of the writing system would not be as solid as it is now. Learning line upon line has its merits.*This is still a work in progress, to be honest. My command of Chinese is nothing compared to my skill with English, nor shall it be for a long time.

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