I recently read The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith. Through sociological observations and educational psychology, he explores how we learn - and why we forget - new information. Smith discusses the "classical view" of learning. Learning is not inherently difficult, nor is it guided by rote learning, tests, and grades. Instead we learn effortlessly - even unconsciously -our experiences, the books we read, and - most importantly - the people around us.
When we deliberately memorize something by rote, we soon forget it. When we learn about something that doesn't connect with what we already know and isn't meaningful to us, our brain processes it in the same way it handles rote learning, and we soon forget. On the other hand, we remember what we learn by doing. We keep the knowledge we gain from the people most important to us. And when we explore something that connects with what we already know and believe, or is meaningful to us in some other way, we absorb it. It becomes part of who we are and is ours forever.
Smith illustrates an idea that is the mantra of unschoolers and eclectic home schoolers. Real learning happens when we experience things, encounter ideas that are meaningful to us, and absorb knowledge from the important people in our lives.
Since reading this book, I've been thinking even more than usual about how we learn. It seems clear that something meaningful to the learner that will be seamlessly woven into his mind rather than digested and quickly forgotten. But what makes something meaningful?
Connections to previous experiences and knowledge is an obvious source of meaning. If an experience is real and exciting to a child, it opens a door to learning something that is naturally connected to that experience. After planting a seed and nurturing the growing plant, the child has an "a ha!" moment when he encounters a book about the life cycle of a plant. A door has already been opened.
A beloved picture book illustrating a folktale from another country can open one's mind to learning more about that region and its culture. My son's favorite picture book, several years ago, was The Mitten by Jan Brett. We read the book again and again, until the words and pictures were familiar territory. Before that, The Ukraine was simply a word to him, or - at best - a one-dimensional spot on the map. The book created a spark that made it real. This could have opened a rabbit trail. Through more experiences and living books, his knowledge about this land and its culture could have grown, because it connected to a story he already knew and loved. A teacher-induced unit on the Ukraine could never have as much meaning.
We see this happening all the time, of course. Nature study, trips, favorite stories, living books, sights, sounds, smells and countless other experiences open doors for children. After watching a squirrel scampering up and down a tree, amassing a cache of nuts, a child has a "aha" moment when listening to a Living Book on how animals prepare for winter. This in turn leads to more "aha" moments when reading living science books, talking about animals, or taking nature walks. A day at Virginia Beach inspired my son and me to read Pagoo by Holling C. Holling. This, in turn, opened the door to discussions about adaptations, life cycles, and instinct vs. learned behavior. These concepts wouldn't have been meaningful to him if they were not rooted in the experiences of salt water, seeing and touching ocean creatures, and reading a wonderful book.
In addition to connections with previous experiences, what other factors that make something meaningful to a learner? Does it help when something appeals to the whole person rather than just her mind?
When I was a counselor, we drew a simple four-part pie graph to illustrate the "whole person" -physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The message, from a counselor's perspective, was to be aware of all these aspects of oneself and work toward a balance among them.
I've been thinking about the ways these different facets of ourselves are involved in learning. When we learn by doing, we use our physical selves. We are engaged mentally when we read, talk, think, and study. Our emotions are involved when we do things we're passionate about, spend time with people we love, or are absorbed in terrific books. We are spiritually connected to what we're learning when it brings us close to something greater than ourselves. Maybe involving multiple parts of ourselves - blending the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual - fosters real and lasting learning.
For example, my son plants sunflowers every year. When his older sister was in public school, she learned about seeds and plants largely from worksheets. She memorized the information for a test, then promptly forgot it. On one occasion, teachers allowed her to plant seeds in the "science lab." This gave her an opportunity to learn by doing, which was a step in the right direction. However, she didn't feel much connection to her plant or to the project.
My son is also learning by doing when he digs in the fertile soil, plants seeds, waters them, and pulls weeds. He is learning physically. He is mentally engaged in learning what plants need and watching their life cycles. He is emotionally involved, because he is crazy about his sunflowers and feels responsible for them. He is also connected with nature, is helping create and nurture life, and is responsible for something outside himself. This adds a spiritual dimension. He could have "learned" about the life cycle of a plant and what they need to grow from worksheets. But by involving his body, mind, heart, and soul, this learning is becoming part of who he is.
When my older daughter was in school, she did many writing assignments. She enjoyed them, and there is certainly value in the mental and physical discipline of writing. However, I have since seen her write things about which she is more passionate. She wrote a letter to our governor protesting the coyote bounty program. She was arguing for something about which she had strong feelings and evoking the spiritual values of respect for life and working for things beyond one's own needs and interests. Another time she wrote a short memoir about her nana's death and the birth of her baby sister. This was an emotional experience and also a spiritual one - as it touched on issues of life, death, and familial love.
Similarly, many of my students have written passionately about their religious beliefs. They were navigating many intellectual exercises - developing logical arguments, supporting their theses, and applying their knowledge of writing mechanics. At the same time, they were exploring things they felt passionate about and delving into their spirituality.
Now, my daughter is immersed in writing a novel. She is finding out, I think, that all serious fiction writing involves the writer's whole self - her physical energy, intellect, feelings, values, and view of the world. This is probably one of the greatest learning experiences of her youth.
My family is gradually teaching me what real learning looks like. I am slowly learning that I can't truly "make" things meaningful to them. The meaning comes from within themselves and is an intrinsic part of what they do. I am hopeful that they are on their way to lifelong learning and a life fully lived - in which their minds, hearts and souls are always growing.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.