Is learning something natural?

It seems so, as we almost all learn to talk and walk. But as Harry Webb notes, maybe not all learning is that natural:

However, I know of relatively few people who have naturally learnt calculus. Calculus is a recent invention, dated to the seventeenth century. We have therefore not had any time to evolve to learn it. No amount of distilling of the world’s hidden regularities, fuelled only by interest and attention, would lead most people towards the discovery of calculus. Indeed, we think that this has only happened for two individuals; Newton and Leibniz. And it only occurred to them because they had been thoroughly schooled in calculus’s precursors; they were standing on the shoulders of giants. In my experience, the people who tend to learn calculus are those who have been directly and explicitly instructed in it.

But the first problem is with the word ‘natural’. What does it mean? Is it the opposite of culture? Than it’s clear that Harry Webb may have a point. Is it a synonym for curiosity? Is it a synonym for an ability to adapt to a situation? Or does it mean that learning is something in our genetic print? Or is it just a synonym for unschooling?

We’ve seen in the past that the idea of natural learning can deliver a lot of problems, e.g. the very ineffective whole language-approach. Even Peter Gray, defender of natural learning par excellence, agrees that it doesn’t work. But he adds it doesn’t work… in school, because school is by definition not-natural (cfr unschooling). One than could wonder if natural learning is effective, and more important effective to all and every subject? And maybe the defiance of natural learning occurred already a long time ago. Even in a situation wherein you had a master teaching an apprentice, natural learning in a narrow definition, didn’t occur. Or the apprentice wouldn’t have needed a master.

I’ve been working a lot on the concepts of Rousseau and in his perspective natural opposites culture and the basic idea is that a child is born as good and too much culture could corrupt the child. His ideas have had an important influence on many educational reform thinkers.

But if you look close at ‘Emile’, you’ll notice that there is also a mentor present in the book who interferes with the natural learning pointing Emile in the (right?) direction. It’s a paradox Rousseau doesn’t solve, and many of his followers still seem to have problems with this.

My main point is: our world isn’t natural. It hasn’t been for a long time. Last week someone told me: children ‘unlearn’ a lot in school. Luckily, I responded. Although we have a lot environmental problems we need to solve, people are now living much longer than ever, because we unlearn a lot of natural stuff.

This all doesn’t mean we shouldn’t foster the curiosity children have, but to me it’s also a mistake to assume that all kids will be interested by nature in everything society thinks important to learn. I agree with Biesta (2010) schools do have 3 tasks, as , for being great in being culture: qualification, socialization, subjectification. Even the last one,subjectification,the process of becoming a subject, isn’t only natural by definition, still both qualification and socialization isn’t culture by definition too.

Maybe we need to have respect for both nature and culture?

References, besides the link in the text:

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