Thursday, December 29, 2011

Does Natural Learning Work?

by Beverley Paine

I think that expectation lies at the heart of our lack of confidence or trust in natural learning.

In my personal journey I have been doing lots of work on expectations in the last 18 months. I've come to see how easily they trip me up, confuse and distract me. For a very long time I have focused on 'realistic expectations'. Offering advice to other home educators I usually counsel them to have 'realistic expectations' when considering this question of what children should or could be doing. Realistic expectations are based on a general understanding of the nature of children/people at that age and stage of development as well as taking into account the personal nature, abilities, disposition, temperament and personality of each individual. All very logical and sound, except that I was still battling doubt, even with adult children who obviously display the 'success' of unschooling, home education, learning naturally, etc!

Obviously we're not going to eliminate expectation nor should we attempt to: it is necessary part of the dreaming, planning, doing, reflecting, celebrating cycle of learning. But we can reduce our attachment to expectation. That's what I've learned in the last half of this year and the more I practice becoming detached to expectation the greater my trust (security, general sense of well-being, joy) has grown.

John Holt said that unschooling isn't the rejection of text-books and student work-books, it is more about the how and why we use them. If we use them when we need to, not when we think we ought to, then they are simply learning resources and enhance our learning processes.

Natural learning is about using resources appropriately and in a timely manner, keeping our goals and objectives real and meaningful to learners and in context with their everyday lives, hopes and aspirations. The content and skills embedded in activities are not what we focus on, unlike traditional educational approaches where these are examined in detail and elevated to the utmost importance.

Our learning naturally children learn everything they need or want to in the same way they learn when they play. We undervalue the importance of play and hence the learning inherent in play because we perceive play as lacking effort. Another word for effort is work and work is usually defined as something we have or need to do rather than want to do. The work of learning doesn't have to be a chore or hard or unpleasant although it can be and often is, but it can also be seemingly effortless, joyful and fun. A year ago a friend said to me that we need to examine how we define 'working'. It is because we were schooled we are fixated on outcomes as well as the perception of the effort expended in achieving those outcomes our concept of educational and parenting success is underpinned by our definition of 'work'. Think about it. Can you change your definition of 'work'? In our home I interchanged 'work' and 'play': we played at working and we worked at playing. We worked playfully and we playfully worked.

Back to that notion of success and the importance of parenting style and education approach. As parents we have very little control over what careers our children ultimately choose or how they live their lives once they've left our nest. We kid ourselves if we think we do... But as parents we plague ourselves with this illusion of control and this feeds our insecurities and doubts which remain as a result of our own flawed educational process. We worry about we can plan for those careers when our children are little; what to teach, how to guide them, what resources we should buy or provide access to, etc. We feel compelled by parental instinct and need to make sure they will eventually survive and thrive as young adults; that we've given them all the tools they may possibly need and have helped them learn how to use them efficiently and appropriately. In a changing world this is indeed an enormous and difficult task!

But is it a realistic one? An achievable one? Are we setting ourselves up for failure at worst, never-ending doubts at best? The answer, I believe is to stop focusing so intently on the future and bring your attention to the present moment: be attentive to your child, to his or her needs, to your needs, the current situation unfolding, right here, now. What is happening? What do we need to do? Do we need to do anything at all? Does what we choose to do build towards the outcome we desire? Is it constructive? Helpful? Positive? Does it align with our values? But most importantly, does it meet the child's developmental needs? 

As a home educator, how did I know natural learning was working? For me is was when my children demonstrated they were growing in confidence and independence. When they brought me interesting things to share. When they demonstrated they knew more about something than I did and could  do things I couldn't, even - and especially - when I had no idea how they learned these things! When they were happy to think differently from the crowd - or from me - and confidently expressed their thoughts. When they questioned the status quo and made up their own minds.

Why is it so difficult to trust? It took me years to trust in natural learning. My head knew and understood the philosophy of natural learning and I confidently espoused that, but living it, breathing it, truly knowing it? That took time. Ultimately I realised that I only needed to observe without prejudice, to witness without judgement, that learning is happening all the time. I'd been trained by my parents, my schooling, and society not to notice the learning inherent in every moment of life. To help me notice it I created a list of our educational and developmental goals for our children (in our words, not drawn from some educational curriculum!) And for a while we created an annual reflection poster as well as a dreaming poster, upon which we wrote what we thought we had each learned or achieved over the past year and what we wanted to happen (dreams and goals) for the year ahead. Looking back over my lists and posters was incredibly reassuring: we consistently achieved 90% (the ones we didn't usually had something to do with owning a Lamborghini or winning 100 million dollars!)

What we do as adults isn't hinged on what and how we learned as children: it has as much to do with who we are, where we are and in what times we live. Ambition, competitiveness, talent and other personal traits make a difference in our children's adult lives. Opportunity and access to resources makes a huge difference. These are things we could be dwelling on instead of worrying about if our children are learning what we think they ought to be.

Three years ago I wrote; "My 22 year old finds it difficult to do some of the things he wants to because he doesn't have the skills and ability. He's impatient to do it now, not wait until he's paid for a uni or TAFE course to get him there in 2-4 years time. He finds his own way and usually gets there. Sometimes he thinks he is failing, other times he feels more confident. He's not willing to compromise on his lifestyle to reach his goals - he'd rather modify his goals! Or wait. Is this because he learned naturally as a kid? Nah - I've met schooled grads who are much the same. In fact, once they hit their twenties, there isn't a lot of difference between this wonderful schooled, unschooled, homeschooled, naturally learned young people. That is to say, I really don't think not learning in any particular way has much of an impact on how they achieve their goals. Method isn't as important as personality. But then again, maybe my kids attract free thinkers with 'have a go' attitudes as friends. Not many of their friends believe that to learn you have to do it in a particular way, even the ones that have become teachers.

By and large, my children have grown up to be the people they innately are. Nourished and loved, given everything a child needs to thrive and survive, in particular timely attention, they have become relatively confident and secure adults. 'Relatively' because they are still learning and growing, as we all do throughout our lives: life is a learning journey and who wants it to be over at 18 years of age! I recognise that we're exceptionally lucky to have lived such a privileged life where my children didn't have to suffer hardships, abuse, neglect, the effects of war, famine or pollution. Being able to lavish them with the attention they need and want as children, 24/7 every day of each year was an immense joy and privilege. And as a result, my children are awesome, people I look up to, admire and take counsel from!
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