User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Natural Versus Unnatural Learning

with 9 comments

There is a huge disconnect between how people learn naturally and how students are taught in public education. Mark Twain once quipped, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

In school, students are expected to . . .

  • Sit in uncomfortable desks and chairs, and expected to pay attention for long periods of time.
  • Learn out of textbooks specifically designed for the institution of education – books that almost no one buys in real life.
  • Be quiet, interacting with peers occurs only periodically and only with permission from the teacher.
  • Learn and understand isolated content and topics often without a real world context and in a very linear manner.
  • Learn with same aged peers.
  • Not connect and learn with others outside of the classroom population.

The unintended consequences of these artificial and unnatural ways of learning include believing that learning is or should be difficult, painful, disciplined, and not fun. This, too often, results in learners believing that they cannot or do not want to learn new things especially in those areas where and when learning was painful. (How Do We Learn? How Should We Learn?)

In real life, learners learn through . . .

  • Setting up environmental conditions for themselves – often in comfortable furniture sitting and laying in positions that work for them; eating and drinking when desired; going to the bathroom when needed and by not asking for permission.
  • Moving around and engaging in distractions which can help in processing information.
  • Asking others for information, ideas, and help on an as needed basis.
  • Getting online to explore personalized inquiry about the content they are learning about.
  • Interacting intimately with content related, real life objects.
  • Learning in a context where that learning real world applications. Deep and meaningful learning occurs within a context.
  • Watching and learning from those more experienced than them. Now with technology, this observation can come in the form of videos, social media, and live communication networks such as Skype and Google Hangouts.

I am continually baffled about the gap between what we know about how people learn and the learning practices used in school settings.

There’s a tension in education right now as educators reluctantly part ways with our old reliable teaching methods—an orderly, silent classroom with students organized alphabetically in rows and a teacher lecturing from behind a desk—and begin to accept novel, research-based approaches to learning, such as student-led inquiry; small group, peer-to peer teaching; and problem-based learning. (Educating an Original Thinker)

It wouldn’t take that much to change classrooms from places of compliance to places of learning. When I taught gifted elementary students, my classroom was set up with a long table with chairs around it, two sofas, coffee tables, rugs, lamps, bookcases with books and games. I did purchase a lot of these items out of pocket but most of them were bought from a local thrift store for minimal costs. The walls were filled with posters and artifacts created by the kids themselves. The kids would come in and put their shoes in a crate at the front door (this evolved due to their desire to do so). As I had each grade for one full day of the week, many would say, “I love coming to this classroom.”  Other teachers who found their way to my classroom would note its homey appearance.

I rarely stood in front of the learners to lecture, only to explain the learning tasks or show them how to do something. We would start the day outside with a group challenge-team building activity. I would offer hands-on activities and choice menus throughout the day to study interdisciplinary topics. . . a mix of language arts, science, math, and arts. They could work anywhere in the rooms. Some stayed a the table. Some went to the sofa. Others worked on the rugs. The last hour of class was spent on choice time. I had computers, educational games, construction kits, art supplies. My only rule was that they had to be doing something “educational.”  The energy in my classroom was joyful, happy, engaged, and focused. The only thing I would add to my mix, given I had the choice, was having mixed ages to reinforce proximity of learning and scaffolding.

Kids learn social skills best by interacting with other kids, and a wide age range (age four and up) allows older kids to “create ‘scaffolds’ for the younger ones, bringing them up to higher skill levels,” Gray notes. “In turn, the older kids gain a sense of maturity and learn to be nurturing. Explaining things also helps them consolidate and understand the information better.” (Harnessing Children’s Natural Ways of Learning)

I written about school being more like camp. I have a hunch that if these ideas were to become a reality, more kids would love going to school, love learning, and most of all develop attributes, attitudes, and skills for lifelong learning.


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 19, 2016 at 10:42 pm

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Another excellent post Jackie. Thanks. Are you familiar with the idea of ‘vernacular literacies’? May Hamilton wrote about these a while a go and I think you have a lot in common with what she is found. I am currently writing and researching about similar matters in a higher education context. Best wishes, Andrew
    (Hamilton, M. (2000). Sustainable literacies and the ecology of lifelong learning. Paper presented at “Supporting Lifelong Learning: A Global Colloquium” , London, England, July 5-7, 2000. Available online at:


    February 20, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    • Thanks for sharing this resource – I haven’t heard of vernacular literacies before. From what I can see, she was ahead of her time discussing lifelong learning and the DIY movement.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      February 20, 2016 at 10:44 pm

      • Yes, I am reflecting on makerspaces as something may influence our understanding of learning and space more generally. This thinking says something about meaningful learning contexts showing us to be effective critical and creative thinkers by nature. It therefore asks us to reconsider the role of nurture.

        Andrew Middleton

        February 21, 2016 at 12:56 pm

  2. I am a Montessori-certified educator, so I know that I am biased toward this type of learning. However, I would like to mention that most of your camp requirements would be covered with a true Montessori education. While the list of Montessori public schools is growing, it’s still quite small and many of the private Montessori schools succumb to parental pressures and expectations. Is there a reason that Dr. Montessori’s work isn’t discussed in “traditional” education circles? When I completed my minor in education, she was never mentioned. Why is that?


    February 21, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    • I actually agree with you and when I taught pre-service teachers I did cover Montessori. I have blogged about it, too – see

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      February 21, 2016 at 3:36 pm

      • Thanks for linking to your blog post. I love Montessori and wish that it was more widely-known. The materials are already set-up to accommodate various learning paths and students can revisit a concept if they need to. Plus, there’s the multi-age component. Unfortunately, my state’s teacher-licensing office hadn’t heard of Montessori. They told me that my college-level teaching experience would count toward certification, but not the year when I was a Montessori teacher in a private school.


        February 21, 2016 at 6:47 pm

  3. I have often been involved in training in industry and teaching in vocational learning organisations.
    From reading your article then there are many crossovers in dealing with adults especially when retraining is involved.
    Peer learning especially and requesting the “guns” help out those who are struggling.
    Normally the groups have been people who have worked together for some time so there is a high degree of trust in the room.
    Fascinating article and will be one that novice teachers should relish and emulate.
    Thank You


    February 22, 2016 at 7:51 am

  4. […] excellent post contrasting Natural vs Unnatural Learning is a good place to start rethinking school. And I love the metaphor of school as summer […]

  5. Wonderful post. Would’t every student like to be in your classroom. My eyes pick out “choice time” because I think it reflects on so much of what we want for our learners. I have written about Choice Time and found other bloggers who are drawn to choice time whether in #geniushour or #PBL paradigm.


    February 28, 2016 at 7:42 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: