It is a delightful pleasure, as well as highly instructive, to be reading Seymour Papert’s 1993 text “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.” After having just finished “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” last night, perhaps I am thinking a bit more about “immortality” than usual. It strikes me that authors can become ideologically immortal in the real world, as long as other people keep reading their texts, after an author shares their ideas in written form.

The most recent pearl of insightful wisdom I’ve garnered from Dr. Papert regards the idea of “natural learning” and how School (I’m following his lead to capitalize the word “School” to indicate a traditional understanding of it) tends to wage war against it. On page 55 Papert writes:

I would agree that learning is a natural act if we are talking about the kind of learning that happens in a healthy relationship between a mother and her baby or between two people getting to know each other. But schooling is not a natural act. Quite the contrary: The institution of School, with its daily lesson plans, fixed curriculum, standardized tests, and other such paraphernalia tends constantly to reduce learning to a series of technical acts and the teacher to the role of a technician. Of course, it never fully succeeds, for teachers resist the role of technician and bring warm, natural human relationships into their classrooms. But what is important for thinking about the potential for magachange is that this situation places the teacher in a state of tension between two poles: School tries to make the teacher into a technician; in most cases a sense of self resists, though in many the teacher will have internalized School’s concept of teaching. Each teacher is therefore somewhere along the continuum between technician and what I dare call a true teacher.

What are the implications of these ideas for your own teaching and learning and mine, in our classrooms today in 2007? Most of the ways of encouraging “natural learning” that come to my mind are not expressly tied to technology, but some can be. I will offer a few ideas, but I’m curious what you think.

  1. Humanize learning: Classroom collaborations which include synchronous interactions (like conversations, classroom debates, videoconferencing or IM) as well as asynchronous interactions (like blogging and wiki building) permit learners to forge personal connections with each other. When digital tools are used, some of these connections can be made in violation of “traditional” limitations of time and space on the School learning context. We should seek to humanize learning in our classrooms by inviting students to regularly collaborate with each other and other learners located in different places on our planet.
  2. Differentiate: In most classroom contexts, curriculum standards and lesson plans continue to be definers of each instructional day. Even though we may not have the luxury (and possibly pleasure) of dispensing entirely with these trappings of coercive School culture, we can find ways to encourage more frequent “natural learning” among our students. By providing choices when students have an assignment, to further investigate topics of personal interest (and therefore relevance) as well as provide a differentiated menu of expressive options for students to demonstrate their understanding/mastery of ideas and skills, we can invite more natural learning. By providing students with more TIME to collaborate, to work, to plan, to discuss, to create, and to share: we can avoid the trap of remaining the often irrelevant and unengaging “sage on the stage” and instead provide contexts for truly “educative experiences.” (Dewey’s term.)
  3. Strive to teach, not be a technician: The pressure in many schools today, made even worse by high stakes testing pressures, is to read a script and “perform on cue” in the classroom, according to the published scope and sequence guide from the district’s central office. Actively seek ways to avoid that spirit-quashing influence, in the same way Harry Potter (in book 7) eventually learned to mentally avoid and extert control over his mental connection to Tom Riddle. That pressure will continue, the connection to the directives of the authorities will persist, and it should not be ignored: In many cases it will communicate something which cannot be ignored. Like Harry, however, the “true teachers” (in the words of Papert) cannot and must not allow the “instructionist” culture of School to entirely define thinking or action. To quote J.K. Rowling and Albus Dumbledore, it is our choices which ultimately define us. Let us refuse to be entirely defined as “instructionists” and “technicans” of School, and rather through our actions define ourselves as true teachers.

Harry Potter and his juice box

Many of us find ourselves working within larger educational systems than any of us can change alone. (I’m thinking in this context of what Papert calls “megachange.” School is a complex, adaptive system.) The choices we make each day, however, matter a great deal for the learners within our personal spheres of influence. By striving to encourage more natural learning during the formal hours of school (the “boundaries of the bell”) we can tangibly humanize the educational environment and promote a culture supportive of engaged learning, inquiry, and fun.

Can you think of other ways, as teachers, we can encourage more natural learning at “School?”


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  • The most important aspect that is missed is selling the subject to the student. In other words, what’s in it for me when I learn this. For example, I had a very difficult time with English classes. No teacher convinced me the benefits. Sure, there are some intro pages to a textbook, but even those never worked for me. I think teachers need to sell what they are teaching all the time. Some teachers briefly mention it in the first class, but then we forget.

    I think the problem stems from that most teachers studied the subject because that’s what they love. However, most students will not share those feelings, so it must be explained to them in another way. How will learning this make a student achieve his goals running a successful business? How will learning this let the student achieve his or her goals? It’s not easy because you have to jump into another mindset and perspective.

    The best teachers I’ve had were teachers with real world experience. They made it real naturally because the subject had helped them in real ways. Unsurprisingly, these teachers are the ones who diverge from the “technician” type of teaching whenever possible.

    Once sold, the students will start to care. Caring is the first step to learning naturally.

    I whole heartily agree with everything above. Keep in mind that I’m not a teacher, but a recent graduate of the American school system (3rd to college).

  • Well you know I love to talk about this Wes:) This is the time of year where I start to get nervous/excited about what is to come. I have learned over the years that I need to just chill out and let it happen. I could get my first 3 weeks of plans all written, and make copies of worksheets, but that would be a waste of time for me, because when those 24 bright new faces walk through my door the whole plan will go out the window, and I will begin to unravel the mystery and wonder of each kid. I will throw out a topic, then listen to the direction they take it. I will use that to create lessons that will engage them. Sometimes it is frantic…I am constantly searching for links and updating my webpage on the fly. Sometimes it totally doesn’t work the way I want it to, but that is a lesson in itself, and so is the time spent discussiong how we can get back to what we need to know. It is scary sometimes to give up the control, and there are days when I do have to regain a tight grip of the reigns and get some district mandated stuff out of the way, but for the most part the classroom is defined by the actions of the studnets and I am just there for crowd control:) The more I do it, the easier it is, and sometimes I feel guilty for the lack of time I actually spend directly instructing them. I am lucky that I have a principal who allows me this freedom, and I am certain that my students are truly learning about as naturally as they can ‘between the bells’. Thanks by the way for continually great posts- I have learned a lot by reading your blog this past year.:)

  • Well said, Amy. And you are most welcome, I’m glad you’ve found some of my reflections helpful! 🙂

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