Natural vs. unnatural (and why many approaches to education fail)

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Sometimes, when I describe our model of schooling to people, I get the sense that they're fighting to not roll their eyes: a lot of what we're planning sounds so touchy-feely, so romantic. Stories! Drawing! Emotions! Well, okay. But other elements of what we're doing — like our approach to writing and math — are the precise opposite: systematic and feedback-heavy.

Are we contradicting ourselves? No! What we're doing is recognizing something that should be obvious: human nature is complex.

There are certain skills that evolution has prepared us to develop quite naturally. Spoken language is one; walking is another. (Note that we still have a hard time teaching robots to talk and walk — something most two-year-olds excel at.) Educational psychologist David Geary dubs these "primary abilities".

Other examples of primary abilities include making sense of stories, empathy, role-playing, metaphors, puzzling, telling jokes, and spotting patterns. (Fans of Kieran Egan will note that these are all tools in his early-age tool kits.)

There are other skills that evolution has not prepared us to develop very easily. Writing is one; doing complex math is another. (Note that we've had little trouble teaching computers to kill at chess — something that most adults can't do without extensive, systematic training.) David Geary dubs these "secondary abilities".

A crucial point: we need to figure out which category (primary or secondary ability) each academic skill falls into. 

When we find a skill that evolution has prepared kids to do, schools need to get out of the way. And when we find a skill that evolution has not prepared kids to do, schools need to be prepared to teach them systematically.

One of the major troubles with educational debates, I think, is that various educational philosophies don't acknowledge this split. Some approaches to schooling seem to believe that all learning is natural. Put kids in a nurturing environment, this "child-centered" perspective holds, and they'll spontaneously develop the skills we want them to have. I used to hold to this philosophy, until I had the chance to observe it over a few years. It seems to be wrong.

Other approaches to schooling seem to believe that no learning is natural. Put kids in a nurturing environment, this "traditionalist" perspective holds, and they'll won't learn nuthin'. This philosophy also seems to be wrong.

Some things are natural, and other things ain't. One of our basic jobs is to figure out which is which. 

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA