Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Natural Learning in an Artificial World
My younger (6 year old) daughter starts a homeschool class this week at a farm/nature center just outside of the city. It's a great place with a stellar staff and high-quality programming designed to expose kids to biodynamic farming practices and sustainability. My daughter loves being around farms and their animals and I'm sure she will enjoy the class, but it's not natural learning.
Natural learning, in the context of this farm education example, is what we did last week as a family when we joined friends in their frequent volunteer work helping out a 65-cow dairy farmer in New Hampshire. That was real work, real learning: shoveling manure from the pens, clearing out and replacing stall bedding, stacking bales of sawdust, hauling the manure in the wheelbarrow to the compost pile, feeding the calves and then--with a sadness that even the 60-year-old farmer still deeply feels--watching the calves separated from their mamas and moved to a waiting truck, sold to another farm. That was natural learning. That experience could never be replicated in a classroom setting, regardless of how authentic the curriculum may try to be.
As homeschoolers, I think we have a tendency to seek out classes and educational experiences that foster what we consider to be natural learning. We look for programming that encourages self-direction and child-led learning. We search for teachers who connect with children and ignite their curiosity. But real, natural learning cannot be captured in a classroom or caged in a curriculum. Real, natural learning occurs by living. It occurs in the daily, weekly, and seasonal activities we perform. Learning to cook occurs by cooking; learning to read occurs by reading; learning to swim occurs by swimming.
This doesn't mean there isn't a role for formal classes or instruction. Even experts benefit from ongoing guidance and feedback. And sometimes classes are just plain fun. I loved taking a class to learn to knit. It helped me to learn some basic skills to begin successfully and enabled me to pass on my knowledge to my older daughter, who now knits far better than I. But natural learning can be much more powerful and enduring than its artificial counterpart. When my children learn to garden by planting a productive garden alongside their talented, master gardener aunt, that learning is deep and authentic and incapable of being forgotten. That is natural learning. When my children see the tears of a lifelong farmer as her calves get sent away for the umpteenth time, that teaches them more about the realities of farming than any class ever could.
In our increasingly artificial world, natural learning can be tricky. It is often easier and more realistic to rely on curriculum-based classes and formal instruction. It is more convenient to drive to the suburbs for a weekly homeschool farm class than it is to drive two hours to New Hampshire to actually farm. I don't dismiss this reality. I only offer a gentle reminder--mostly for myself--that natural learning occurs from being immersed in the real work of daily, weekly, and seasonal living--wherever we are, whatever our interests and needs.
Sometimes classes can be meaningful and enjoyable, but they are no replacement for natural learning which never costs a penny and is absolutely priceless.