Natural Learning – a Brief History

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Natural Learning – a Brief History

John Barratt-Peacock

The other day I was proofreading an article on home education when I came across a statement that equated Natural Learning
 with Unschooling and Unstructured Learning. This is quite a false association. By their nature unschooling and unstructured learning are merely a valid reaction to schooling but natural learning is different. It is scientifically based on the anatomy and physiology
 of the human central nervous system including the brain (CNS) and has nothing to do with school-based pedagogy except that anything learned in school is learned when natural learning is allowed a foot in the classroom door. What follows is a brief outline of how natural learning got its name and was incorporated into Australian home education practice.

In the mid-1970s I found myself surrounded by medical and allied health professional students studying for a Master of Science degree at Guys Hospital Medical School/London University courtesy of a very tolerant and supportive wife. The umbrella title of the course was “Human Communication Studies” but as a professional teacher, I was most interested in how learning happened and how a monkey was being successfully taught to think like humans and converse with them.

Because of the way we are conceived every human being shares some genetic material with each of its parents, and through
 them, of their ancestors in diminishing amounts back through the generations. That being so, parents are the best equipped adults 
to communicate with their children before puberty. If that is not happening in your family the cause may be found in the culture
 and I recommend to you that you limit its influence, at least
while the children are experiencing huge CNS development in
their younger years. To that end, in spite of huge and continuing social pressures from all quarters, I banned television from my family home (and if parenting today would ban social media and other communication devices) but we provided a rich intellectual atmosphere through the books we read, the music we heard and 
the activities we shared. The first point then, is that parents and children are naturally programmed to be learners/educators together and no professionally-trained teacher can match that advantage. It should be noted that parents do not naturally share that advantage as between themselves. My in-laws spent their entire married life finding reasons to argue and disagree with each other but they both communicated easily and lovingly with their daughter.

The second thing to notice is that every healthy and whole human being has essentially the same features and structures within their central nervous system but that within that main framework there is huge individual variation. Over time as each individual develops and matures that variation extends in quantity and quality and has the potential to do so until death closes the whole thing down. This process moves the focus from that which is shared by parent and child to what becomes the individual’s unique identity and way of interacting with the world. The ‘big bang’ here begins with the development towards puberty but hints of it will already be apparent long before as each child develops his or her own learning style.

Throughout this period and from puberty onwards efficient education depends upon recognition of the individual’s internal hierarchy of learning pathways and connections. Fitting experience into that matrix of individual hierarchies and connections is what natural learning is and, for the individual, there is no other way or manner
of learning. All of their learning 
is obtained in that way no matter whether it is experienced in school or at home or in the local or international community. It is “natural learning” because it is of the nature of the unique individual as he or she interacts with the world, internalising, organising and understanding the things experienced.

When I first made that discovery I was so excited! I altered my entire approach to the education of my children. I remember that I rushed home having decided to apply it to the growing of a patch of carrots in the garden. I asked my daughter how many carrots we would eat as a family in one year (Quantitative analysis, market research etc.) We researched the background of the carrot which was originally yellow and grown so that the leaves could be used as an ornament on hats (history, genetics, fashion, horticulture etc.) Oh it was so good! I even wrote a pamphlet about it and circulated it around home education camps and conferences. I called it the “Carrot Patch Method” and bored everyone silly until a very experienced home educator in Nimbin said to me:

But John, this is your hierarchy of connections that you are using not your daughter’s and it is only working because she is so young and has not yet fully developed her own hierarchies.

I felt worse than a pricked balloon when I recognised that she was right! It had worked well but would only do so during the period when the genetic material that we shared was prominent and, as she developed her own strategies and hierarchies, it would become redundant.

Back at the drawing board I wondered how I could discover/access her pattern of connections and hierarchies. I knew that I could do it through Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory and through old fashioned word association methods but they were primarily designed for use with sick adults, not vibrant, optimistic, young children. In the end I decided to leave my daughter to her own devices for a period while I concentrated on ways and means to discover her internal intellectual landscape. Connectionism appeared to hold a lot of potential to my solving the problem.

A good way to understand connectionism is to take an old shoe box, or something of about the same size but made of a stronger material such as timber, and make a lot of holes in its four sides and bottom. Taking lengths of elastic of different strengths, tie an end to a match stick and thread it through a hold into the box and out of a hole in another side or the bottom. Stretch the elastic a bit and tie if off on another matchstick. As you proceed with other lengths notice where they cross already fixed lengths and tie some of them to those lengths also. As you proceed with this, notice that as you add the tensioned lengths of elastic they distort the other lengths to which they are connected according to the tension and thickness of the elastic involved. What you have done is to create a model of memory traces and pathways of recovering information from the mind. The thicker and most influential lines and connections are represented by the stronger elastic and the higher number of connections.

Once I had done enough tracing of her connections with my daughter I thought that I should be able to ask the questions that would tap into her mental matrix. Alas, even at this very simplistic and basic level it was too complicated to achieve anything significant and I gave it up.

She was not the least concerned and while I had been carefully working all this out and “neglecting her education” she had gone merrily on her way following her own fancies along already established connections, strengthening some and creating others
as she felt the need. That is when it hit me. All learning is natural learning because new learning naturally fits into, modifies and extends the matrix of neural connections in the brain. In her mind,
by her actions and interests, at her own pace and by exercising her own curiosity and choices she was generating and answering her own questions and filing those questions, answers and experiences into the matrix of her own mind. It was an entirely natural process spontaneously generated and would go on in ever increasing complexity while she lived and dealt with her own questions. That is what learning is and without that process there is no learning. Whatever a teacher or a parent might do, or however a teacher or parent might try to gain access to that process and the material stored in it and constantly being modified by new input or revision of content, the effort and time is very largely wasted.

My child, any child, is a pre-programmed learning organism. The best that I can do is to provide information in as attractive a way as I can, and part of that attraction may be that it is a necessary precondition to
gaining what she wants. In addition, I can assist when requested. I think the learning of manual and formal intellectual skills may be different in some ways that require guided training, but basically education, wherever is it located, is about learning not about teaching. It is unique to an individual and either delight- directed or ends-directed by the learner.

The world renowned educator/philosopher L. Vygotsky once said that all thinking occurs first as social interaction in the lived-in world before being internalised in the mind of the learner. As home educators our duty and joy is to provide our children with as rich and varied an environment and experience as possible so that they may have the material from which to grow great and loving minds. They will learn good things from such an environment each in their own way… naturally.

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