How Unschoolers Learn:
|When we spend time on a problem, we begin to understand the deep structure of it on a first-hand basis. And that apparently allows us to transfer our insight to other problems in ways that those who were passive recipients of someone else’s knowledge can’t.|
Although they had difficulty completing the assigned problems correctly, they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what a solution might look like. And when the two groups were tested on the material by being asked to solve complex problems based on the earlier simpler set, the students who hadn’t received instruction “significantly outperformed” the first. The findings were the same, regardless of the level of the students’ mathematical ability.
This seems to demonstrate the difference between memorization and real learning. Kapur refers to a “hidden efficacy” that results from muddling through a problem – i.e. making mistakes and learning from them. When we spend time on a problem, we begin to understand the deep structure of it on a first-hand basis. And that apparently allows us to transfer our insight to other problems in ways that those who were passive recipients of someone else’s knowledge can’t. That, I think, is learning that’s useful in the real world.
I also think it’s safe to say that the learning is even more effective if it’s based on a problem that the learner posed in the course of her own real life. When I used to help people start small businesses, I would often tell them not to be fearful of the process, since many successful entrepreneurs failed a time or two before their next idea took off. Some of that eventual success was likely thanks to luck or timing, but the learning that resulted from the failures was most important.
Kapur goes on to suggest how productive failure can be built into the education process in systems that seem adverse to the mere word. But it’s already there in real life from a very young age – in a toddler who falls a time or two while learning to walk, in a baby who doesn’t get an immediate response to her crying and must do something different (or louder) to get attention, and in a beginning reader who stumbles over some words. Babies are not interested in short term rote memorization; they are focused on deeper understanding and learning in the real world. And so are our life learning kids; don’t worry if they fail a time or two.
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s editor, the author of four books about unschooling, and the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school.