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Self Education and Natural Learning

© Beverley Paine

The following is a rambling essay in response to a letter I received about self education.

Self education is a good term for what I now call 'learning naturally'. I don't like the term 'natural learning', even though I occasionally use it as it's too vague and nebulous - all learning is natural. Learning occurs 24/7 (as my daughter would say). If you're breathing you're learning. You can't help it. Most folk don't see 'sub' or 'un' conscious learning as learning. I don't want to get into discussions about what consciousness is and isn't as that will get us into hairy territory rather quickly, especially if you begin to consider at what age/stage one becomes self aware, or aware of learning processes, etc. That's a huge subject.

I don't like the word education either. It seems to denote institutionalised learning. It's more of a formal process too - less spontaneous, creative than learning naturally perhaps?

Self directed learning, or allowing a child the right to control their own learning, is fine once that age/stage mentioned above is reached. Until then parents (caregivers) have a responsibility to see that the child's learning needs are met. This is the hard bit, where parental/societal values must 'fit' the child if all is to go well. Mostly it's a hit and miss affair. The closer to a 'natural' social setting/environment the child lives in, the easier it is to 'hit'.

I place a lot of importance on the learning environment - not just physical either. Emotional, social, spiritual aspects of environments are important.

I believe that a child will follow a learning naturally process as a matter of course - he or she has no option. It's up to the parents (caregivers) to understand what the child's learning needs are and to work towards meeting them. Luckily we're all human and have more in common/alike than not - and are thus our needs are common and easily determined. We can use empathy and sympathy and honest memory to guide us as to what young children need and want in order to grow happily in all directions. There seems to be patterns underlying the structure of our universe - based on common sense principles - that make the job somewhat easier (if we pay attention as we learn and make the connections that reveal the patterns).

Regarding the placement/valuing of 'meaning'. I've learned this is a particular world view, not a common one at that. Many folk don't consciously make 'meaning' in their learning or day to day life beyond what's necessary in the moment to move on to the next moment in a sensible, productive way. A few of us make links between meanings, constructing complex meanings that end up creating something called culture - we record this stuff in various ways, as opposed to the rest of the folk that simply live it, then move on, mostly forgetting it.

My husband, a great natural learner, is more into the accumulation of knowledge (he is known locally as Encyclopaedia Robinica) than in what it all 'means'. Unlike me he's not into making meaning from his daily experiences in a conscious way. He acquires elements, bits and pieces of information, skills etc, and links them (to make meaning) only when immediately useful. He is highly selective in retaining linkages as well (I think we all are). My brief research on the topic of learning styles was useful in expanding my view of how learning occurs for different people. I'm a 'meaning' focussed person, forgetting the elements (the accumulation of facts, etc). I tend to build up a rickety skeleton of knowledge that can be dressed with detail garnered from outside sources when needed, and mainly focus on the all important links, relationships, how it all goes together and what it all means.

It's easy to see that motivation underpins conscious learning, but would add that unconscious motivation unpins all of learning anyway.

I think that any one can learn any thing any time if they work out how to drum up enough motivation. Knowing who we are and what we want (from life) seems to be a key to successful accomplishment of any goal. Naming the goal (based on who we are and what we want - understanding of 'self') seems crucial in this process. Young children don't articulate this verbally, of course, they live it. Hence their very successful learning experiences in early life.

I'm pretty touchy on the 'freedom' word. No one is 'free' and control is simply an illusion. We are social animals, and as such are never free from social obligation/responsibility. This necessarily conflicts with our essential selfish being - the conflict results in growth. Learning is about conflict. Without conflict learning wouldn't occur. There has to be a question, a doubt, a what if, etc to push us into the unknown. (you called this speculation, imagination, etc in a later paragraph).

It's the love, trust, respect, time, enthusiasm, support and guidance, that is provided by the parent (caregiver) that allows us confidence to leap into the unknown. Parents must provide that illusion of control in the early years.

I'm not sure a mind is ever a 'passive recipient', though it can be more passive than active, that's for sure. We may not seem to reflect on what's going in at the time or turning it into immediately useful knowledge, etc - but our brains are processing all the time. I reckon we underestimate the process in our feeble attempts to get a handle on what's happening, and the result is we come up with these concepts like passive recipient which tend to dumb us down...

We're thinking beings because we breathe. We're brilliant thinking beings. We're amazing. There are minute details in every moment (waking or sleeping) that we are processing. Let's not underestimate the importance of those seemingly insignificant details - they may become significant at some stage of our life.

I believe that the learning motivated by a person's desire to understand the world around (to move on from one state of conflict into another state of conflict!). But I disagree that it is only 'driven by pleasure and engagement', and 'not obligation or escape'. Those other states are important to development of character too. I like to celebrate all the various states of being and see learning in each of them. Escapism is fine, fantastic - I learn as much from my escapist activities as any other.

There is much enjoyment to be had in becoming aware of how one learns, and what there is to learn, from each and every moment of every day, not just the 'valued' moments, but the lot of them! For instance - dreaming (waking and sleeping - the ultimate mode of escapism) is a powerful tool for learning about the self, one's life, one's problems, one's reality... I believe that periods of uncertainty and indecision are important parts of the learning process - this reinforces my theory about conflict as being at the heart of learning.

Natural learning is not a method, not like say, phonics. We're all natural learners, even when we're engaged in some learning method.

It is so much easier to say what natural learning is not, rather than what it is. Is it such a nebulous concept that it can't be grasped so easily? I believe so. And it takes an enormous amount of faith/trust to feel safe (a giving up of the need to control our learning processes in order to learn more efficiently - control is necessarily restrictive).

Learning naturally occurs as much in schools and other places as it does in any other environment - it's just that in these places (which don't value individual learning needs) the goals and objectives and outcomes aren't what everyone thinks they are. For instance, my daughter had a learning naturally curriculum whilst at school. She learned what she needed from that environment and all that went with it. A completely different agenda to what the school thought, and for April, it was a mostly unconscious learning process, run by her unknown and un-stated needs to develop in a particular way. From my habit of closely observing behaviour and events and reflecting upon them (making meaning) I began to see that school was the only place available to April to learn those lessons she innately understood were necessary. In many ways she was like a toddler, putting learning tasks in front of herself without knowing why, simply trusting in the learning process as it unfolded.

I'm not a lover of schools. I dislike them, but not because they aren't places where learning thrives. We are all learning, all the time, in our very personal efficient ways. What we are learning may or may not be valued by us or others. In the case of schools what we learned doesn't seem at all valuable, but it works/suits the way we've set society up. Some of don't think society works well at all. We're moving into values and away from learning theory though. If we're attempting to define 'natural learning' we need to steer clear of value judgements as they muddy the description. We won't win converts to this way of thinking if we aren't inclusive of all world views in our definition - which I believe we can be.

As an overprotective control freak, I have some problem with the statement "natural learners believe that overprotection creates dependency and coercion creates defeat, but that the chill of freedom motivates and invigorates and the sense of control empowers." I prefer to aim for vulnerability. With it comes trust and faith - without which we can't learn to love. Open heartedness and unconditional love, respect, etc have to be the cornerstones of humanity, don't they? Control, empowerment... ummmm. I'm not too sure. Dependency is the cornerstone of social growth. As social animals we are all dependent upon one another. Life is, by nature, interdependent. There is a place for independence, but it must be in balance with dependence.

Learning naturally is much more than the need to make meaning, as in 'understand' whatever we experience through our senses and our reflection of our experiences. It's about using, acting and reacting as well. We don't always need immediate or reflected upon meaning. There is much learning that is merely absorbed, stuff that 'clicks' into place - makes sense - much, much later. It's all important, all valued, though not consciously all the time.

Most people don't know they are natural learners. They don't know they have the ability to celebrate the stuff that is always going on. They have been completely dumbed down by the concept that to learn one must be taught. You say natural learners are passionate, confident, infectious, with active guidance. I say all folk are - they just don't know it, don't recognise their own learning ability in each and every moment, and thus don't capitalise and learn more. Awareness is the key. Awareness is not valued by our society.

Respect is a cornerstone of social growth, and thus learning. Natural learning is an attitude to life, a set of values rather than a set of tasks. It starts at birth and is continuous throughout life. Rather than lineal and "logical", learning just as often zigzags across a wide range of territory, following this passion and that interest.

I think that learning naturally is always logical, even when by other's standards it appears illogical. It has its own internal, consistent logic.

Regarding freedom, or the abolition of coercion, I don't believe that it is fundamental to natural learning. Coercion is part of the social learning we must all navigate through in order to become caring, considerate, respectful, trusting adults. A lot of people tag emotions, and emotional states and the like as 'good' or 'desirable' or 'bad' or 'undesirable'. This kind of value judgment stymies learning (and thus freedom?). When we're learning we're naturally engaged in some level of conflict. Consider how learning occurs - where it happens, what happens next, how to move on, in ways that satisfy the needs of all individuals. We need to nurture an approach that doesn't just 'pleases' someone somewhere at some particular time in our lives, or behave in a particular way at a particular time (isn't this the core of socialisation though, another interesting subject and a necessary part of social development?)

I find that I have to discard my personal set of values, albeit temporarily and with difficulty, when I consider the subject of learning, or else risk undervaluing ways in which other's learn, or what they learn, and why they learn.

It's true that natural learning is not a "do nothing" or "anything goes" approach." However, I've found that when I do nothing educationally with the children I learn more rapidly about the true nature of learning. Only by relinquishing control can most parents begin to see that their interventionist educational approaches are inefficient and wasteful, and in some cases damaging. Anything goes leads to children feeling so out of control conflict quickly arises and brings life back into balance (one way or another).

I also believe that parents must actively construct an environment where children can be free. The problem with school is that folk expect it to do a job it can't do. No more, no less than that. I don't think coercion really comes into it all that much. Not many people want to be with their children. Not many people want to play with their children. Most adults are adult focussed. Children, as a rule, in our society, are possessions (have been for thousands of years), not people, not until they are old enough to work and earn their keep that is. The myth that schools are supposed to educate continuously creates the mire that dumbs down whole populations (but this has always been the purposes of schools - the production of consumers and meek, apathetic workers). Children may be coerced into school (through innocence and ignorance), but their parents have choice, always have had choice. They chose schools. The fact that we don't, and our children don't go, proves that choice exists. Mandatory enrolment/schooling is a myth. Don't believe it. People love to claim their being coerced - they believe it absolves them of responsibility - a great example of the victim mentality schools help to promote.

I often ponder the way in which a mind 'locks up' forever. I can see it happening, but am altogether an optimist. If I haven't learned something now, from what's on offer (whether ill-timed or coerced) I will later. Life brings to me what I need to know/learn. If all the prep work isn't done then I'll come back on that section of the learning spiral. I always do. (Observation at work here). I don't believe in mind lock ups. I don't believe in 'best times' to learn things either. I can learn anything anytime. Motivation is the key. Meaning comes, often in its own time. The two are closely tied - dependent upon one another. You can use meaning to create motivation, you can use motivation to create meaning.

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We began educating our three children in 1985, when our eldest was aged five years. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn as they grew and explored and discovered this amazing world since the moment they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. I hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was!

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