Education in the Gaps between Lessons

Another ‘Fireship’ from our very own Chris Shute!

One of the prime paradoxes of education is that a most important part of anyone’s education takes place at an age before even reactionary English Law requires children to be sent to school. I spent years learning how to teach modern languages by the most modern methods, which I did without recognisable success. Lest it be thought that I was a specially poor teacher, I took over several fourth and fifth year classes whose pupils, instructed by others for years before me, were possessed of practically no serious knowledge of the languages they were supposed to have been learning to speak. Yet I remember Bob Malik, one of my pupils, who claimed to be able to speak six Indian languages. His father had been a doctor working for the Indian Railways, and he had followed his family up and down  the length and breadth of the line, picking up the local speech-patterns from the stall-holders in the bazaars. Many of them would have been illiterate, and all of them were innocent of anything remotely like a teaching qualification, yet they were able to transform young Bob into an efficient user of the language they happened to speak.

He was an example of a phenomenon which passes unnoticed, possibly because it represents a danger to the establishment of the School Industry. It is the simple, but radical fact that children learn the things that they perceive to be vital for their survival in this world, or that seize their consuming interest, without lessons or tests, curricula or programs, by trial and error,  taking as much time and effort as they feel they  need. The resulting skills tend to be polished because they are pursued with energy and enthusiasm, and the child is not ground down and thwarted by adults intent on ‘correcting’ him or her.

Why is teaching school subjects so different from the things we learn, as we say, ‘at our mother’s knee’? Presumably the same mechanisms in the brain are used for both, and we call them by the same names – ‘learning’, ‘getting skilled’. The only departure from the desired outcome of the experience is that people who have learnt  naturally tend to retain what they have been exposed to, whereas school students have to revise and be tested on the subjects on their curriculum lest they forget the things which they have been so expensively taught.

What, then, are the differences which seem to make ‘natural’ learning so much more efficient than learning under instruction? My analysis is, I suppose, no more probative than anyone else’s, but I proffer it as the fruit of a lifetime’s experience of observing human beings growing up and adding to their knowledge and skills.

First, we need to consider the conditions in which learning takes place. ‘Natural’ learning occurs in a continuum of organic activity which proceeds from the normal course of life. The learning is perceived as continuous and contiguous with all the other things a person does throughout their life. Certainly, a child, and for aught I know an adult as well, discovers, in the routine of daily life, an ever-widening range of tasks which they find they can do. Initially it might be cooperating with the person who is dressing them; in time tying shoelaces might be added to the repertoire, and then saying what they choose to wear. They learn to do these things without ‘study’, by trial and error. Often they find themselves able to what they couldn’t do earlier, without being able consciously to trace the stages which they pass through in the learning process. This indicates clearly that there is a way of inducing learning which is successful, not stressful and easily retained. 

The next aspect of ‘natural’ learning which distinguishes it from lesson-based learning is immediate relevance. Lesson-based learning tends to occur when a bell rings or when the clock shows a certain time. The relevance of the material                                                                            presented by the teacher is only evident to him or to her. To the learners the lesson is a mere accident, an episode in the course of their lives. They may be interested in the material which the teacher happens to be presenting to the class, but no-one ever sets out to discover whether they are or not. Of course, the teachers consider their lessons relevant. Haven’t they spent years at school, college and University, attending lectures and field-courses, tutorials and writing endless essays and lecture-notes? The effort to gain knowledge and the fact that someone else thought it important enough to set up a course to teach the subject confers a degree of ‘relevance’ – in the common understanding of the word – on the object of study. However, a more precise, humanistic  definition might incorporate the thought-patterns of the person called upon to establish it, so that the only way a thing can be ‘relevant’ is if the person or people involved perceive it to be so. No other standard of judgement is authentic.

The third distinction between ‘natural’ and lesson-based instruction lies in the enthusiasm and verve with which the learners approach their task. When a piece of learning is seen by learners as necessary for  their social survival, or it captures their interest they approach it with enthusiasm. I remember being intrigued by languages at school. The idea of learning to speak to other people in their language rather than mine intrigued me, and although it was taught from a traditional, pedestrian book I enjoyed the lessons. I had no such reaction to History, which was taught by a teacher who had mastered the subtle art of boring his students into submission. Any attempt at subversion succumbed instantly to a miasma made up of grinding boredom and a hypnotic, droning voice. The man had perfect control, but his lessons killed any interest I might have had in history. As a result I had to wait till my mature years to revive any interest in the subject.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of lesson-based learning of which the ‘natural’ variety is innocent is simply organisation. Teachers assume, because they have been taught from the very beginning an unplanned lesson is a bad lesson, yet under conditions of ‘natural’ learning, the ‘student’ encounters new information in what seems like random order, or rather in an order determined by the precise nature of the task in hand. We tend to assume that people require to be taught the simplest things at first, and only when they have mastered them can they pass on to the more complicated stages of the subject. That may apply to some areas of interest, but I would resist the idea that this principle applies in every case. Some things are complicated from the start. The act of walking cannot be simplified: a person either walks or doesn’t walk. Teaching children to walk only requires that they have the necessary strength in their legs and space to walk in. Speaking one’s mother tongue is the same: no-one starts teaching children to speak by using the ‘simple’ words at first. Rather they speak in whole sentences, incorporating all the subtleties peculiar to the language, and sooner or later the children display the same mastery. It is all a matter of time: children take their  time to pick up a language, but they generally achieve a good grasp of it. They begin by listening to already efficient speakers, then they experiment with phrases and sentences which they happen to understand, before finally achieving the goal of thinking in the target language. I remember hearing a German Holocaust survivor recounting how as a child he spoke German, then his family migrated to England, where he learned English, and then he was taken to the Netherlands, where he became fluent in Dutch. The only course materials he needed were other people, including children who could speak the local tongue.

If I have made any sort of a case against lesson-based learning – and I believe I have, in embryo, at least – the guardians of modern education are wasting billions of pounds by insisting that all children study all the traditional subjects in the same way, without inquiring whether the students had any interest in them, or whether at any time in their lives they would need any of the facts or skills so expensively forced upon them. The history of compulsory education is the history of a government-organised theft of generations of children’s time, energy, curiosity and enthusiasm for life. We have culpably decided, as a Nation, to sweep aside a whole gamut of supremely efficient natural mechanisms for autonomous learning, and installed in their place a method of instruction which succeeds only in transmitting to some pupils a limited range of information and skills at the expense of a vast social problem made up of classroom disruption and school refusal. A similar waste of money in another field might lead to rioting in the streets, but we have invested too much of our longing for our children to be successful in the simplistic procedures of schooling to abandon easily a method which we perceive to be working, even when it fails in a large proportion of cases, and blights the lives of many children by convincing them that they cannot learn anything worthwhile.

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