Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

On learning outside of formal education

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

In my first Skype convo with Chris Friend he said something along the lines of “many ppl confuse learning with schooling” – something which struck me at the time, as wow, that’s such a simple way of making such a profound point. I have since told Chris that I find this statement in everything I read now, which is kind of nuts 🙂 But I still remember that moment when Chris said it with such simplicity.

Today I’m having professional development overload. You could argue some of that is in formal contexts (#eli2015 conference) and a workshop on campus, some reading of blogs in #moocmooc and then this beautiful long article on informal learning which I heard about through a link in Barry Dyck’s blog (i think it was one of those 6 degrees or clicking things… Or 3 maybe).

I took some notes and won’t have time to polish them up, so here is just a glimpse (it’s a loooong article):

Carol Black says A Thousand Rivers:

When people really want a skill, it goes viral. You couldn’t stop it if you tried.

In other words, they could read for all the same reasons that we can now use computers. We don’t know how to use computers because we learned it in school, but because we wanted to learn it and we were free to learn it in whatever way worked best for us. It is the saddest of ironies that many people now see the fluidity and effectiveness of this process as a characteristic of computers, rather than what it is, which is a characteristic of human beings.

I love this – reminded me of Papert’s work, and yes, computers have nothing to do with it, but they are the ‘thing’ these days and they do offer a kind of universality or versatility that allows this to take on different proportions. I’ve said before how my child can type but she still can’t write. Typing is easy with low fine motor skills as long as she recognizes the capital letters.

Now i also love her next point about how artificial school is as a learning environment. Beautiful metaphor ahead:

Any wildlife biologist knows that an animal in a zoo will not develop normally if the environment is incompatible with the evolved social needs of its species. But we no longer know this about ourselves. We have radically altered our own evolved species behavior by segregating children artificially in same-age peer groups instead of mixed-age communities, by compelling them to be indoors and sedentary for most of the day, by asking them to learn from text-based artificial materials instead of contextualized real-world activities, by dictating arbitrary timetables for learning rather than following the unfolding of a child’s developmental readiness.

And oh my God, this one – about how parenting and schooling can be like trying to exercise control in really unhealthy ways that go against children’s nature:

Like people who try to keep wolves as pets, we find that some of our children start to chew through their leashes.

I also love what comes next, and what it means for parenting and how we have much less control over who our children are than we think… It’s not a nature/nurture debate thing, we all know it’s a bit of both, but it’s a matter of “will” and agency, i think – that a child at some point recognizes their independence and that we should nurture rather than suppress their will, etc…

Our children come to us as seeking beings, Maori teachers tell us, with two rivers running through them — the celestial and the physical, the knowing and the not-yet-knowing. Their struggle is to integrate the two. Our role as adults is to support this process, not to shape it. It is not ours to control

Something in the article (regarding playing piano but not reading notes – i am that person who can play anything on a piano but never had the patience to learn notes fluently; i can read em but not fluently; i can play anything on the piano usually without thinking at all) – that all reminded me of an interesting convo i had yday. A faculty member was all for revamping and overhauling the institution of formal edu – no courses, no semesters, no exams, no grades. Then, a few mins later he’s talking to a music teacher about guitar lessons for his kids. Right beside him was a colleague of mine who plays guitar and i mentioned this, my colleague said he’d self-taught guitar (and he plays in a band, too) so he cannot teach. The faculty member continued to inquire about formal guitar lessons for his kids. Ohhhhh the irony!!!

Another thing that was really interesting in Carol Black’s article was the part where she talks about kids learning to read spontaneously once it captures their interest… How schooling sort of is a stumbling block in this natural process… And she says how her child was afraid to read certain things and wanted an adult, didn’t like the finger of an adult underlining words (i almost started doing this with my daughter!)… And it all made me realize what’s happening right under my nose! My kid has loved books since she was 3 months old. But she’s recently taken an extra interest in a book of nursery rhymes. She picks it up, points at a picture and asks to sing it together. She also sometimes asks for particular ones, and some, whose music i don’t know, we just sing according to the pictures, like if it has a star, its twinkle twinkle; if it’s a bed, it’s “frère Jacques” and so on. It made me realize that my kid’s musical interests might be what makes her love reading!

I need to go – but one more parenting point and relevant to teaching and learning, too:

But any Maori mother knows that children do not learn in a straight upward line but in a stair-step pattern. They leap forward, then plateau for a while, then leap forward again. Their learning is an underground river, you can’t see it, can’t even feel it at times. Then suddenly they soar. You can’t control it; you can’t take credit for it. It’s theirs. You have to be there, providing warmth and stability, providing tools and resources, answering questions, telling stories, having meaningful adult conversations and doing meaningful adult work in their presence. But when they soar, it’s on their own wings.

4 thoughts on “On learning outside of formal education

  1. Thanks Maha – I loved Carol Blacks article too. Resonant how to be with (grand)children but also thinking about implications for teaching adults

  2. Beautiful article Maha, especially liked the the observation that unschooled learners tend to want to “own” their learning–claim it as theirs. I remember being told it was anti-social or selfish to not want help when to me it seemed like someone else wanted to boss my ideas around or correct ME–like that was any of their business to just go stomping around in my brain:-(
    Pauline mentions adults and an allowance for self-consciousness needs to be made but maybe we resist being taught as a unconscious reaction to the feeling of being corrected or deemed “incomplete.” While processing things (usually slowly with lots of side paths) being “taught” often feels like too early an intervention that interrupts my method of discovery. Or maybe I just don’t accept things the same way others do? My younger Daughter tells me that all the time but won’t ask her what she means:-)

    1. My daughter stopped wanting ppl to dress her or open her juicebox with a PASSION once she could “kind of” do it independently. It’s great except when ur in a hurry. I once got mad and said ‘i’m leaving u alone to dress, and u better be done when i a, back’ and now that’s how she likes to dress! She tells me to leave the room so she can dress (bottoms only, still needs help w tops)

  3. I’ve been missing things. Independence pays off. Our kids went to school in some strange outfits for a while and had understanding teachers. Having the school one block away and knowing all the faculty helped. Both our Daughters are are independent thinkers and it wasn’t always easy but on her suggestion my younger one helped me broker a peace agreement with my Oncologist–she worked in N.E. India for a year and knows bureaucracy plus how pig headed I am. This opens up an opportunity to recruit rural patients patients like me who get poor service to be heard through Rebecca’s blogging course. Telling Hoda to dress herself gave her a choice, not an edict. That’s very important for her self esteem and allows her to ask you for help too:-)

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