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  • Steven Delpome

Repost: a theory on how we learn


Rearranging the site and moving this piece to the blogs as that seems to be where it belongs anyways. Reposted along with some reflection by me about these ideas...just to play really. If someone happens to read this, enjoy!

How did you learn to read?

Well first you learned the alphabet. Then you learned how the letters sounded individually. Then you looked at some books and learned to form words from those sounds. And then you learned those words had meanings. Then finally you learned how those meanings fit together to make sentences. Makes perfect logical sense, right?

No. It does not. ::Cringing at how certain the tone of this is. Actually most of this reflection is probably going to be cringing I imagine. Who did I think I was?:: Logic will tell us that step B happens because of step A and step C happens because of steps A and B and so on until we get to step...let's say J. The problem with the above logic is that it starts on step E.

Your learning to read did not start with the learning the alphabet.

The first thing you did was babble around lost for a while making noises and seeing what happened to the environment around you. ::I was not really knowledgable of self-directed learning when I had these ideas, but it's funny to me that my intuition was pushing me there long before I was aware of it:: You weren't lost. You were experimenting. If you were in distress you made a loud irritating noise and large versions of yourself ::"versions of yourself" I wonder if babies really see things this way. Only because I read recently that elephants look at us humans like we are pet cats. How do babies see other human beings?:: came to respond. Sometimes they knew what was wrong and got it on the first try, but more often than not, they checked to see if you pooped or peed, hugged you to see if you were nervous or scared, shoved something in your mouth to see if you wanted to eat and rocked you to see if you wanted to sleep and maybe they got one right. Maybe none of them were right and you were just testing to see if your screaming would always prompt the big ones to come and get you what you needed.

You were always listening to the big people and the sounds they made and you noticed that the same sounds would come out in certain situations. Whenever it was time to eat they made a sound like "bottle" and your weak tongue mimicked that and said "ba ba." ::true? no clue, but it feels true:: Sometimes they were easy ones that you could mimic and when it was changing time they'd talk about "poo poo," and you felt successful because you could say that one! If there were others around that were only a little bigger than you, you might have heard them call the big ones "mommy" and "daddy," and you did your best to squeak out "ma ma" and "da da."

The important thing is that you started to realize that your irritating scream wouldn't get you exactly what you wanted when you were hungry, but "ma ma" would get the big ones attention and "ba ba" would bring food.

Eventually your tongue and lips became more capable and you started to be able to mimic the sounds of the big ones in an exact manner and you learned more sounds that had meaning and you mimicked longer sounds the big ones made that had familiar parts that you already knew: "you wanna ba ba?" you heard. "wanna ba ba," now got you food. You learned that those sounds, longer sounds, got better results and happy responses from the big ones who you now knew well were your "mama" and "dada." And the sounds got longer and you began to connect images and concepts to the sounds everyone made and "ba ba" meant sustinence from that cylinder with the tasty liquid in it, though you didn't know the words sustinence, cylinder, tasty or liquid, you did know the concepts of hunger and satiation, though you didn't know those words either. ::Good Lord what a show off with the vocab here!::

You didn't need to know the labels to understand what something was. The labeling came later. Labeling like the alphabet and picture books and dictionaries and sentences all came much later in your natural learning process. This was the time where the adults stepped in and guided you.

That little hairy thing running around the house. You learned it was a "doggy." At this point "mommy," as you now knew her, might have pulled out a picture book where on the page was a picture that looked like your doggy on it and below the picture was the word "dog." Now you were ready to learn the nuance of reading: that this symbol, "d" makes a "du-" sound, and that there were 26 such symbols and they were used to give names to all of the concepts you'd already learned about! ::seriously, I like the idea, starting to hate the writing. This. Is. So. Lectury.::

When you learned naturally, the first thing you learned was the concept.

That cycle repeated itself again and again. You saw the big ones getting around so easily so you experimented with different ideas--many of you crawled, some of you lurched, or rolled. Still not fast enough.

"How do I get in the position they are?"

You experimented. You pulled yourself up using the couch. Success! You pulled yourself up using the tablecloth. Failure. You went back to the couch. Success! "I'll use the couch now." You experimented more. You pulled up on things that felt secure like the couch and learned which things were insecure like the tablecloth. You pulled down the curtains a few times while learning this.

"I'm upright. Time to move."

Faceplant. ::why I chose this word I don't know:: You'd mastered the concept of standing by mimicking the big ones and experimenting until you got it but when it came time to move...well you'd been leading with your head for so long it only felt natural to do so and it did not work. You would have to unlearn to lead with your head. (anyone who's ever used the two finger hand grip method to help a child learn to walk knows this is true--picture it now, which part of the body is lurching out first as you stand over them trying to walk?) "How do I move like the big ones without falling down?" Though you are sure you'd have figured it out on your own eventually, at this point the big ones step in and guide you with the two fingers and you are grateful because, despite your certainty that you would've figured it out, those experiments really hurt and you might have hurt so much that you'd have given up. ::again, true? No clue. Feels it though::

The more you practiced with their help, you figured out that the secret was in the hips (Isn't it always?). ::cringiest attempt at humor on this entire site right here. ewwwwww:: And once you got there, you zoomed off and the big ones couldn't even keep up with you!

In both examples, the adults intervene much later in the process. The learner ::funny how this word has become so distasteful to me now:: was first lost, experimented to see what results different methods would bring, learned failure and success (was never punished for failing--very important), mimicked the surrounding world, gained an understanding of concept, then the adults stepped in--with alphabets and books for reading, and with two fingers to guide walking. This is the way we very naturally learn! ::starting to wonder if I could've written this with not even half the words I used here::

Until we get to school.

In school we are taught the labels of things. "This is a noun." "This is a verb." "This is a cumulus cloud." And even though the teacher believes at heart that this is not teaching using rote memorization, when we start with the label and move to the concept later, we have no choice but to try to memorize, lest we forget the label, which is what we will need to know for the test so we can get a good grade and please the adults!

We weren't built to learn the way we too often require children to learn, and until we change, schools will never be everything that they can be.