What Does "Real Learning" Look Like?

Children’s learning is not all in their heads, so let's make learning memorable

“…we tend to regard it [thinking] as a kind of disembodied process, as if the body’s role in that process were to carry the brain from place to place so it can do the important work of thinking.” ~Carla Hannaford, PhD. Smart Moves, Great Ocean Publishers.

Learning that lasts happens in the whole body, not just the brain. So what does that really mean? It is our senses that capture information from our surroundings and feed the brain with information from which an understanding of the world develops. This happens automatically and without anyone monitoring or supervising the process. Let’s consider how this process compares to the way we teach our children.

How children learn most naturally

It happens that I grew up in the Honduran Aguan Valley to missionary parents. By current US standards, we were very poor. My siblings and I didn’t have toys – just some books and the outdoors. By current US standards of education, the schooling I received was simple and minimal. By minimal I mean it did not involve complicated curricula, detailed projects and reports, or busy work. We could "do school" for an hour or two, then we escaped its clutches and fled to the outdoors. The passive learning I did during those hours could not begin to compare with book learning.

The reason my early years were rich in learning is that it is through our senses that we gather the best knowledge. It is through hands-on experiences we learn the best, and it is through solving “problems” that come up in the process of outdoor play that we learn the most.

We learn through our eyes. We see colors, shadows, movement, size, motion, expressions, and patterns. We see the way chickens waddle when they run, how clouds drift across the sky.

Through our ears we experience the myriad sounds to be found in our world; everything from the whisper of the wind through a pine tree to the loud blare of the fire truck blasting its way through the intersection.

And smells! Smells add such a fine varnish to our sensory experiences. Consider the fresh scent of the pine as the wind sighs through its branches. Or the pungent, breath-catching odor of a billy goat. Smells complete the picture as we learn about our world.

Furry pets and birds and how they feel make up some of my earliest memories, but I can still remember the first time I held a snake. Nothing in my previous encounters had prepared me for that experience. I learned in an instant so much about a cold-blooded, scaly creature. I had read the words that described snakes and other cold-blooded animals, but actually holding one taught me far more, and taught me instantly and unforgettably.

Another side to my life was the practical side. In absence of TV and any media including telephone, I had the freedom to hang out in the kitchen and get underfoot. I was interested in all the things going on there. None of our food was prepared, so I was able to participate in every stage of getting and preparing the food we ate.

All our laundry was done in wringer washers and was a gloriously wet and sloppy affair. Of course I was drawn like a magnet to that whole process. We hung the drippy clothes on the clothesline and the wind and sun did its work. I can still feel the dry clothes, crispy and stiff, as they came off the line smelling like the great outdoors.

No one was supervising all this outdoor experience to make sure it met standards or educational requirements. No one was dispensing knowledge; no one was testing me on my new found knowledge. It was happening in the most natural and effective way possible.

How our children learn when they “do school”

If I am a child “doing school” today, however, chances are I will be sitting on something hard, facing the adult who is talking to me, and then responding to what I hear by writing something, solving an arithmetic problem, or saying something back. Much of what I am taught will be communicated to me verbally, or through words in books. Much of what I take in visually will be in the form of words on the page and illustrations. In school, most new information is communicated this way.

I have taught in small groups, one on one, and in classrooms, and frankly I have to admit that the most efficient way to communicate new information is by telling the kids what is in the lesson. It takes far less time. We can check off the lesson and move on to the next one. Problem is, this practice doesn’t seem to be compatible with what we know about the easiest and most permanent way for children to learn. I think it is a matter of moving away from teaching the program to teaching the child.

The biggest obstacles to creating educational systems that are truly consistent with how a child learns best are 1] lack of time, 2] paperwork, 3] tradition. Anyone who teaches a child at home, or anyone who teaches in any capacity in school can attest to the first two obstacles. I still shudder when I recall the huge volume of paperwork I had to do as a teacher. Reports, beautifully formatted lesson plans, etc. My biggest stressor while teaching was the fact that I never had time to sit and contemplate the best way to teach my kids. I grabbed handy resources and it was not best for my children.

When we teach science, what about our lesson is going to become deep and significant learning for the child? In studying mammals, for instance, we could show the child a picture of a goat, or a cow, we could list the characteristics of mammals and ask the child to be able to list them at some later point. This practice would involve seeing pictures and words in a book, listening to a teacher talk and explain. That would involve the ears and eyes in flat and unmemorable ways. If writing the characteristics down were called for, that would involve holding a pencil and seeing oneself write, but the richness of meaning and experience would be missing. The hook to emotions and senses that combine to make for a truly deep learning experience.

If there were TIME, and you could take a child to see a real goat, the sensory input to the brain would be so much richer, broader, and more powerful ~ therefore more lasting. Goats smell pungent! They blink large dreamy eyes, they nose up to you, likely they will be chewing something and their jaws will move in a sideways grinding motion. If I reach out and pet the goat, I’d feel the coarse texture of the fur, would feel the warmth under the skin, I’d feel the roughness of the horns or hooves. All this information is transmitted to my brain in mere seconds and in ways that will never be forgotten.

From this one unforgettable, multisensory experience, I could branch out with far more understanding to learn how a cow differs from a goat. What do they have in common? What does a cat have in common with the goat?

What can we do to transform our children’s school work?

I believe the main reason we don’t teach our children memorably is because our available curriculum is flat and limited. It is primarily paper and pencil. It involves memorization instead of the instant learning that happens through the senses. It involves showing what we know on paper with a pencil. It is daunting to branch out from known programs and trust our judgments as we teach our children. But homeschooled children are the most likely candidates for this great experiment.

One requirement for transforming “doing school” for our children will involve making sure we have the list of really necessary concepts we must teach our children. Get back to the basics, and do those basics in the best possible way for our children. For example, we know our children need to learn to read, write, compute – those mechanics of a good education. They need to learn how to count and use money, how to tell time, how to measure something, how to turn water from a liquid to a solid and to a gas. They need to learn about land forms, various kinds of living creatures, about the seasons and the phases of the moon. Much of this can be taught through hands-on real experiences we share with them as we do all the things we do to care for our families.

But the richness of what we want our children to know to prepare them to be successful members of society can best be learned as they walk with us throughout our day and as we involve them in small daily events. It will mean shutting off the TV and the other media and talking to them about decisions we make, what the options might be, and teach them to evaluate options and choose the best one by modeling those thought processes for them.

Living the concepts of school will engage children and help them to be successful. Engaging their emotions and interest in what they are learning is the first part of successfully teaching them anything. Beyond that, avoiding memorization, using image, story, music, rhyme, and other such elements to transmit learning concepts will help your child not only learn, but to love learning.

When it comes to transmitting those nuts and bolts of education such as reading and computing, we have created a storehouse of materials you can use that will bring as much of the sensory into your child's learning experience as possible. Image, color, pattern, and other wonderful learning elements will help your child, just like it has helped hundreds of other children, learn when they had trouble learning and remembering before. 

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