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The Nature of Learning

Maya Angelou


There are many studies, polls, opinions and quotations summing up the nature of formal education in this and other countries. The overwhelming majority believes there is something missing, something not quite right about our current educational systems and the forces behind them.

The purpose of education is the guiding of another to inspiration and self-empowerment that the whole may benefit through the awakened genius.

Not long ago the student was required to learn and effectively demonstrate mastery in a trade rather than write a thesis proving his understanding of a skill or practice. The idea that the student benefited from a hands-on approach to learning, discovery through both failure and success, was seen as a valuable asset both to the individual as well as to the community itself.

As the student (apprentice) studied, the master’s job was to offer knowledge bearing life-application in a reasonably safe and efficient environment at the pace of the apprentice. There were, of course, flaws in this independent system as well, often allowing for abuse or neglect or exploitation during the course of the agreement. But the educational foundation is valid.

Schools like the Waldorf and Montessori models offer more practical, free-form educational environments, catering more closely to the needs and interests of individual students. Homeschool environments are even better able to adapt studies to the individual interests and talents of the child, but are still criticized for poor socialization models, although the majority of homeschooling parents of the past ten years have shattered that early public perception.

Both a public school educator and homeschooling parent, I find that there is no single model that meets the needs of all. The key is to maintain an excitement about learning while supporting each individual’s interests, skills, passions and growth.

Learning was never meant to happen by rote in windowless boxes at the mercy of the dunce cap or ruler. Each of us comes into this world bearing different gifts and meant to explore an individual path. While basic skills are necessary, they can be taught in a way that the student seeks to learn more…

Perhaps the child’s interest is in cooking. Following is a list of basic skills and activities directly associated with this area:

  • Reading: recipes and other guidelines, acquiring deeper knowledge
  • History & Culture: researching food origins and their medicinal or folk benefits in various societies
  • Math: fractions, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division
  • Science: chemistry, biology, physical science
  • Health: food groups, healthy food choices & combinations, calories & exercise, menu planning, development of a discerning palate
  • Gardening: organic options, planting, harvesting, weather, seasons, regular care for another living thing, natural preservatives, natural pesticides and chemical damage to the environment, ecological mindfulness, composting, recycling, insects and other garden “pests”
  • Community: farmer’s markets, smart shopping, coupons, community gardens, co-ops, personal sale or donation of items grown and harvested
  • Other Skills and Knowledge: hand-eye coordination, organization, equipment safety, respect and gratitude for food items, sense of accomplishment, completion of task, service to family, assessment and planning, troubleshooting, teamwork
  • So much more…

Any subject can be covered this way in any discipline to varying degrees. A healthy and interesting variety of subject matter is the only way to awaken the true genius each individual bears.

Regardless of the child’s area of interest, the educator’s responsibility is to seek out and guide in a way that continues to inspire and empower the student, offering plenty of hands-on opportunities to explore the subject area and personal space in which to think, problem-solve and gain understanding.

The value of the child is unlike any other. Like all parents, we bear our children, nurture them, play with them, discipline them, honor them and live with them, teaching them with every word, look and gesture. We would offer up our lives for the sake of theirs and pay whatever we can to support their health and quest for knowledge.

But unlike older systems of education that gathered the children together to be taught by the elders of their tribes and then sent to incorporate that knowledge immediately with community or personal tasks, we send our children off to “study” with people we do not know (most of them underpaid, overstressed, under-supported and underfunded public servants).

The result is that we see our children go from elementary to high school or college with little understanding of the “real” world or how to successfully operate within it. Understanding and appreciating the contributions of other individuals as well as the community as a whole and learning to take responsibility through empowered choices rather than through force of direction, is arguably more important than memorizing times tables.

It is our responsibility to educate the “whole” child, body, mind and spirit.


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