Natural vs. unnatural (and why this is a smidgen too simple)


Is this whole natural/unnatural divide simplistic? Yeah. But it's a helpful place to begin — even if we need to move beyond it.

In my last post, I cited a distinction made by cognitive (and evolutionary) psychologist David C. Geary: humans are biologically prepared to do some things, but not others. Things that we're designed to do (walking, singing, telling stories) he calls primary abilities. Things that we're not designed to do (riding unicycles, juggling, Newtonian physics) he calls secondary activities.

This distinction isn't just academic: it lies at the heart of what our schools (any schools!) see as their purpose. In fact, this distinction neatly encapsulates a major divide between two major philosophies of education.

One type of school thinks that learning is unnatural. These schools (let's call them "teacher-centered" schools) think a school's job is to instruct. If schools don't do a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much.

The other type of school thinks that learning is natural. These schools (let's call them "child-centered" schools) think a school's job is to provide an environment for learning, and then get out of the way. If schools succeed in doing a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much — because students learn best on their own!

So what is it: is learning unnatural, or natural?

This is a question of human nature. And in my last post, I suggested that, well, human nature is complex. Some things are natural for us, and other things are unnatural. Success in schooling depends (I suggested) on figuring out which is which.

But that's not so simple.

It's not (for example) that art is a primary ability, and math is a secondary activity. Entire subjects don't fall neatly into one camp or the other.

Rather, each subject demands multiple skills. For example, in an English class, students read, write, discuss, reason, empathize, and so on. Each skill may be primary or secondary. 

In fact, it's more complicated than that. Each skill is made up of sub-skills. Writing, for example, is made up of spelling, handwriting/typing, syntax, idea generation, idea organization, and so on.) Each sub-skill may be primary or secondary. 

And in fact, it's even more complicated than that! Typically, a sub-skill isn't purely natural or unnatural. Human nature doesn't usually work like that. There are a few things that we do wholly naturally: breathing, for example. A person raised on a desert island would breathe just fine.

Wel, obviously, schools don't need to teach breathing.

But other primary skills seem designed to be activated and shaped by cultures: dancing, for example. All cultures dance — but it's not clear that a person raised on a desert island would dance by themselves.

So is dancing primary or secondary? Well, it contains elements of both. The urge to shake and jump and wiggle — all in tandem with other people — may be primary. But specific elements of motion (for example, pliés in ballet, promenades in square dancing, and arials in swing dancing) may be secondary.

Why does this matter? Because we need to tap into students' primary abilities, and be prepared to systematically teach secondary abilities.

In teaching dancing, for example (as will be an important aspect of our schools), we'll need to capitalize on young students' desire to shake and jump and wiggle, and on older students' desire to touch each other. (That schools typically ban touching seems a sure sign that they're evolutionarily off-kilter.)

But we won't assume that undirected wiggling will automatically bloom into beautiful dancing. Rather, we'll be prepared to teach elements of more formal dancing from a host of cultural styles — circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood.

As I said before, we'll start with abandon, and move into structure.

If we don't tap into students' primary abilities, we'll be passing up our greatest resource. This is the mistake that teacher-centered education makes.

And if we don't systematically teach secondary abilities — if we expect them to just grow up naturally — we'll be denying our students the education they're ready for. This is the mistake that child-centered education makes.

Our job — as a new kind of school that takes human nature seriously — is to draw upon primary abilities, and systematically teach secondary abilities.

Next, I hope to explore how this can look in teaching writing.

(Props to David Geary: his categories of "primary" and "secondary" abilities are designed to reflect this messy reality. They're not "pure" categories. It took an earlier debate on this blog — about whether math instruction is "natural" or "unnatural" — for me to realize that. Props, too, to Catherine Lewis, who helped me see that.)

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


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. 

A new metaphor: plant knowledge


One of the things I struggle to explain to people — particularly to other educators — is the utter centrality of knowledge in thinking.

We think about things, but we also think with things. Brilliance, wisdom, creativity — all these come from having learned about the external world. When we learn, we internalize — we take what's outside us, and re-create them inside us. 

This is knowledge.

Knowledge is the re-creation of the external world inside our own cranial jelly.

This seems straightforward — and yet. The troublesome thing is that, for a hundred years or more, a crucial contingent of educational thinking has stood against teaching information.

As an unfortunate-but-typical example, take Maria Montessori. Montessori truly was an educational visionary; I'm still playing catch-up to her insights. And yet she displayed her own brand of anti-knowledge:

Education should no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentials.

Note that there's something true, beautiful, and good about this quote: education should be (must be!) about the development of human potential. 

The error comes when developing potential is seen as opposing imparting knowledge.

Gaining knowledge is the quintessential way of developing potential — at least, it is for humans. (Bears, maybe, would develop potential in other ways — eating more salmon and blackberries.)

If we move away from imparting knowledge, we'll move away from a more human education.


And yet — when educators speak against "knowledge acquisition" as the goal for an education, they really are saying something true and beautiful and good.

What they're worried about is a method of schooling that sees children as nothing more than computer hard disks to be filled up with data. This truly is an anti-human education. But moving toward the opposite extreme is little better.

Our idea for a new type of schooling is about knowledge — deep knowledge. That's implicit in our trinity of goals: love, mastery, and wisdom.

As St. Augustine noted, "You cannot love what you do not know; you cannot know what you do not love." As cognitive psychologists have demonstrated, expertise is a type of knowledge. And as philosophic traditions the world over have long understood, living rightly derives from a knowledge of what the world is like — the word "wisdom" even comes from the Proto-Indo European root meaning "to know."

There's long been an educational battle between the pro-knowledge and knowledge-skeptical camps. It's not going away. We don't need to identify with the pro-knowledge camp: it's been misunderstood by the other side for too long.

Rather, what we need to do is open up a third way between them. We need to work out how to talk about the glories of knowledge acquisition done rightly, and the evils of knowledge acquisition done wrongly. We need to figure out which metaphors and verbiage and stories show people how wonderful knowledge can be, and how essential it is to developing love, mastery, and wisdom.

This is an important task for our movement: schooling won't be able to lead kids toward genius, toward wisdom, toward creativity until someone figures out how to make knowledge attractive again.


I'm working on this, but here's my conception for now: use an organic metaphor. 

Instead of memorizing material, or acquiring information, we might talk about planting ideas. 

Planting stories. 

Planting knowledge.

This can take us into a nuanced understanding of the plusses and minuses of storing information internally, rather than externally. The splendid educational writer Annie Murphy Paul (whom everyone should be reading) writes about a recent division made by philosophers on the differences between "O-memory" (organic memory: your brain) and "E-memory" (electronic memory: your smart phone). 

Her brief article brilliantly takes us beyond the well-worn education turf battle. She writes:

With our computers, we can search, store, and check. With our minds, we can browse, elaborate and reflect.

Each memory system, that is, has its advantages. We should use both:

If we make note of an upcoming appointment in our smartphone, its digital calendar won’t misremember the date or time, as our all-too-fallible brains are apt to do. On the other hand, if we enter the germ of an idea in our phone’s note-taking app, we won’t return after a busy weekend or a good night’s sleep to find that the idea has grown new connections and layers of meaning, as an idea planted in our organic memory is likely to do.

(Thanks for the metaphor, Annie!)