WHY Natural Learning: Does it make sense?

By Kathleen McCurdy

E.D. Hirsch, a professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, considered a leading educator in some circles, is opposed to natural learning. In a speech given at Harvard University a couple years ago he stated: “…schemes such as multi-aged groups in which each child goes at his own pace; individualized assessments instead of objective tests; teachers as coaches rather than sages; projects instead of textbooks. Such methods, although they have been in use for decades, have rarely worked well.”

Hirsch upholds 18th century classicism, along with modernism and pragmatism, and claims that academic goals and artificial analysis are necessary, along with explicit instruction, in order for the child to be prepared for life in our society. He denounces natural learning as romanticism, and what he calls progressivism as “a kind secular theology that, like all religions, is inherently resistant to data”.

Mr. Hirsch, of course, has probably not experienced homeschooling. It is easy enough to dismiss anything by calling it a religion. But I would suggest the problem is even worse. Not the fiery fervor of religion, but the indomitable force of instinct is what drives the proponents of natural learning. Of course professionals must justify their class distinction. There is nothing natural about school, therefore it surely follows that education must be contrived. But why this attack now, in the face of the riotous and sweeping successes of the homeschool community? Surely it was this same kind of thinking that led us into the recent behavioral dark age instigated by B. F. Skinner, a world where babies were born in surgical wards, and mothers were instructed in the use of formulas and bottles, and warned that children would be “spoiled” if parents responded to their cries. Yes, in such a world nature and mother instincts stood opposed to the “scientific” opinions of educated patricians.

Many experts claim to know how to teach a child, but do they know how to educate him? Perhaps professionalism is a form of religion too. It takes a lot of faith to believe that removing children from their parents and making them serve time under an authoritarian regimen in a formal institution is somehow going to prepare them to love and serve their fellow man and live a peaceful and prosperous life. But mothers know.

A mother knows

Instinctively, this is how as mothers (and fathers) we help our children to learn:

1) We provide feedback. When the baby coos, we respond. When the child asks a question, we provide the answers. When the teenager needs our trust, we spell out the boundaries and then give them a lot of rope. How am I doing, Mamma? You’re doing great! Over and over and over. It is hard to imagine just how important it is. We couldn’t walk if we didn’t get feedback from our feet, skin, ears, and eyes. We couldn’t talk if we didn’t get feedback from the sound of others’ voices, from the looks on their faces, their body language, from many and repeated responses to our own attempts at communication.

2) Without conscious effort, mothers model the skills we expect our children to develop and we give them many opportunities to figure things out. Because we walk, they want to learn how to do it. They may fall down a lot, but that is part of the process of learning. We go to the store and buy things, and soon they want money and a chance to make their own purchases. They’ll make some wrong decisions, but that is the best way to learn-when it’s just a few dollars, than later in the face financial ruin. When calamity strikes, mothers seek out counselors or read self-help books, or try again-and our children see how life goes on, and they figure it out.

3) At home, children are provided with time for thinking. Schoolwork consists largely of learning about other folks’ thoughts, but in real life it’s doing your own thinking that counts. Time for playing, time for experimenting, time for just sitting and pondering-these are the luxuries that gift the child with thinking skills beyond the ordinary. Yet how could the school reformers ever envision such a process? It wouldn’t work in the laboratory, and you could hardly package such concepts or impart them to aspiring young educators in a textbook.

Examples of natural learning

Here is how I taught my children to read with alphabet blocks. First we played the Alphabet Train game, which consisted of lining up the blocks in alphabetical order, with A as the engine and Z as the caboose. They would play this game for several days or weeks and then if they still wanted to read, I would show them how to make 3-letter words with the blocks: pat, hat, cat. Later we would change the last letter: pat, can, cab. On another day we would change the middle letter: pat, pet, pit, pot, put.

Later I would show them a few “sight words” such as: I, to, the, and we would make silly sentences using the blocks: “Am I to mop up mud?” “Don met Dad at the dam.” We did all this as games to play when there was “nothing to do”. If they were ready to read, they soon figured out how it works. And whenever they came across a word that didn’t seem to fit the pattern or was hard to spell, I would offer them several examples so they could create a ‘family’ of words in that category, for example: rough (instead of ‘ruff ‘), tough, enough. All five children learned to read but not in the same way or at the same age. Some took longer, including one who didn’t read until age nine, and one learned without any help on my part at age five.

More natural lessons

When Jesse was around ten, he was still not interested in developing his writing skills. So when he showed interest in getting his own library card, I pointed out that he would need to be able to sign his name. When he could do that, I would help him get the card. He lost interest. I did require the kids to write thank-you notes for their gifts from the grandparents, but his notes tended to be rather limited to the bare essential words, copied from what I had written out for him. At about this time Jesse became a talented boy soprano (in a local boy choir) and had the privilege of singing a solo part with the Spokane Symphony and Chorus. It was a big moment in his life.

After the concert ended he was running around backstage on adrenaline overload, so I handed him my program and suggested he get autographs from the famous adult soloists and the world renowned conductor. Delighted, he dashed off and I watched him as he worked the room. When he came to the female soprano, she readily signed his program and then asked him to sign hers. From clear across the room I could see the look of terror on his face as he stared at her for a moment and then came running to me. “Mom! She wants my autograph!” I said, That’s nice. Now go back and sign her program.

“But I can’t write very well, and it’ll take me a long time…” But I pointed out how rude it was, after she had provided her autograph, for him to refuse. So back he trudged, and it did take him a full five minutes to write his name as carefully as he could on her program. However, for the next week or so (with no prompting on my part) he spent many hours each day practicing his signature-just in case he ever got famous again!

Now as adults, my children can all write-some more neatly than others. I’ve been getting a lot of complaints from my new general manager about how hard it is for him to read my handwriting. And I’ve been biting my tongue not to point out that *his* handwriting isn’t so hot either, nor as good as his younger brother’s. Back when Jesse was practicing his autograph, Joe was telling us that he was going to hold out for hand-held writing devices he hoped someone would someday invent. He now owns a Palm Pilot. So you win some and you lose some. I find family genetics a useful study in determining how hopeless the losing streak may be. When it comes to handwriting… well guess which parent owns a laptop!

The ‘religion’ of learning

Well maybe Mr. Hirsch is right, in a way. Maybe natural learning is kind of a religion because more than anything, it seems to be about trust and acceptance. Parents trust that their children will learn to walk-and they do. Even though one of my grandchildren never got around to walking until he was 16 months old, eventually he learned to walk just fine. And sooner or later parents come to accept their child’s strengths and weaknesses. Because parents learn that just as they have managed to survive in life in spite of flunking spelling or getting a D in physics, their children will become successful adults even if they never do memorize the state capitals or the multiplication tables.

Recently, a parent who was concerned about getting her child to write legibly said: “As an adult I blame [my parents] for not stepping into my life to guide me into things I should have be taught. I believe once my daughter sees the benefit of neatness she will respond accordingly.” I’m afraid this parent will be sorely disappointed because no one can coerce neatness or any other skill into a child. Ultimately it is a choice they make, to learn or not to learn.

My children were especially headstrong. Not seeing any purpose for writing exercises, John’s handwriting actually deteriorated the more he practiced. Finally he resorted to printing-and I vowed not to put his younger siblings through that ordeal.

So when Jim called from college and complained that I hadn’t *made* him practice his handwriting and spelling and it was now affecting his grades, I was ready for him. “And just how would you suggest I do that?” I asked, “Because your younger brother is following in your footsteps.” He asked to speak to Joe, and after a few moments the phone was handed back to me. “You’re right, Mom,” Jim admitted, “It was my choice. It was not your fault, because I could have improved if I had set my mind to it.” Sweet words to a mother’s ear!

Freedom and responsibility

As a piano teacher I’ve heard many adults complain that their parents never made them practice. They’ll say it is their parents’ fault that they never learned to play well. This is nonsense! When my mother made me practice, I hated the piano (and took up violin, because I really did love music). But it only took a year or so, after she backed off, until I fell in love with the piano and began, all on my own, to develop a practice schedule of three or four hours a day. I could certainly thank my mother for her musical genes and for her encouragement, but no amount of prodding or coercion could have produced the amount of practice that I chose for myself in order to achieve my goal.

Wherein my children have excelled, it is not something I did for them. They did it themselves. They are like plants which grow as best they can, given the sunshine of encouragement and the rains of opportunities-until something interferes with the process. Parents who take credit for “training” their children may have created interesting Bonsai-like specimens, but they can hardly take credit for growing mighty oaks and firs to their natural proportions. That happens as a matter of course.

Many studies have demonstrated that learning is diminished in the presence of stress, structure and coercion. Intellectual giants of past generations-Einstein, Edison, Churchill, Patton, etc.-either resisted formal instruction or were generally self-taught. We should not be surprised at the lack of success exhibited by schools generally. The wonder is that it has taken so long for society to even notice that education is so stymied in those institutions. And now, while desperately trying to ‘reform’, most still fail to apprehend the true cause of their defeat.

Is it so hard to comprehend that learning is always successful when it occurs naturally? All healthy babies learn to walk. No special training is necessary to teach a child to speak in the correct syntax of his native language. By the age of three most children can speak in complete sentences, use generally correct pronunciation, and comprehend various grammatical practices-though they may not be able to name them. No formal testing is necessary to demonstrate this; just a few friendly questions will do. All of this learning occurred without government subsidies or professional educators-as long as the child was in the company of his parents or other adult caregivers who took the time to provide conversation, feedback, and answer questions.

In the end, the homeschool movement must show the way back to educational excellence, not by imitating school but by modeling true natural learning.