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  • Writer's pictureCassie Janisch


This morning I was reading a book to Kwandokuhle, a three-year-old Zulu girl in our Misty Meadows preschool group, and I started to think about our human obsession with getting children to read. This little girl comes from a rich oral storytelling culture, and I noticed how she didn’t want to look at the pictures as I read, she wanted to watch the animation on my face to get a better sense of the story. I love this about preschoolers – their full immersion in the human experience. Yes, they like books, but they like to watch the people telling the stories better.

This made me think of my 14-year-old son, who still asks me to read to him every night. We are busy reading a Chinese-themed fantasy novel called The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu. I have no idea if I pronounce the names correctly, and there are multitudes of characters, themes and storylines unfolding simultaneously. When I lose the thread of which character the story has hopped to, my son tells me in detail (using my exact pronunciation of the names) which character this is, what his backstory is, and often where my son thinks his story might be going too. I am in awe of Luke’s retention of the Chinese names, themes, and story arcs, and all this whilst never glancing at the book, and simultaneously playing a complex chess game on He never looks like he is paying attention at all. I often pause in my reading, worried that I may have lost him, but he then repeats the last couple of sentences I have just read, verbatim and using my exact tone, with impatience that I have doubted his attention. He is a child who never reads anything if he can listen to it instead, and is always busy with more than one thing simultaneously. He always looks completely unfocused and disinterested in learning anything at all.

My third story is about another Zulu child, Luyanda, who arrived at Misty Meadows high school this year able to read English fluently. He had obviously been taught to read using the phonics method. We started off impressed by his reading ability, but we quickly came to realise that, for him, reading is a task of repeating learned sounds rather than interpreting the meaning of those sounds. He actually does not take in the meaning of any of the words as he reads them. He literally cannot tell you anything about what he had read, despite sounding almost flawless as he reads. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this boy’s intellect – he plays music beautifully, he has a great sense of humour and brilliant comedic timing, he can build things in 3D effortlessly easily, but reading as a means of understanding something means absolutely nothing to him.

Carol Black (in her magnificent A Thousand Rivers essay) is famous for saying that “Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behaviour in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behaviour at Sea World”. I have come to realise that at Misty Meadows we are uniquely positioned as researchers of natural human learning in a group setting. We are not teachers, but rather watchers of children constructing their understanding in as rich a natural learning environment as our community is capable of creating.

The adults at Misty Meadows are some of the few people who get to collect data on human learning based on children’s natural learning behaviour in a group setting that is responsive to feedback loops and therefore constantly evolving, rather than static and hierarchical. I know that homeschooling parents get to collect data on their own children’s natural learning, but we get to see a larger and more diverse community of children interacting freely with each other, and to witness the learning that emerges through the natural dynamics and interactions of this multi-faceted community. The adult facilitators at Misty Meadows often reflect that the true value of our community is in the largely unhindered human relationships we watch unfolding every day, and the multitude of ways that children construct meaning for themselves through their interactions with our diverse variety of other humans of all ages.

And in this ecosystem do we observe the supposedly "core skills" of reading, writing and maths being naturally prioritised by children? I would argue that very few children naturally prioritise these skills for themselves above other forms of learning. Many people think this is a bad thing, and that children should be forced to master these core skills as a higher priority than any other skills they might choose to work on. So many of us have preconceived ideas about the hierarchy of what is most important for children to learn. Even parents who consciously choose our natural learning ecosystem for their children often believe that reading, writing and maths are the most important core skills on the learning hierarchy, and that these need to be prioritised above everything else. Yes, the rest are nice to haves, but definitely less important.

The three examples I have cited above are to illustrate my repeated observation that this learning hierarchy is a false proxy for a true understanding of human learning, and how to succeed at the game of life. I am not saying that children should not learn how to read, write or do maths. Of course, these are skills that can enable many forms of learning. As someone who loves to read and write and do maths, and uses these methods almost exclusively to enhance my own thinking, my life would have been infinitely poorer if I had not mastered these skills. And, of course, I consider myself highly intelligent, except when I go to a yoga class and try to think myself into an inverted posture where my feet have to be on the wall… nine times out of ten I end up facing the wrong way. Despite my “high intellect”, I find this type of 3D-thinking virtually impossible. My yoga teacher can look at a human body and observe where it is stuck or out of alignment. I have no idea how to “speak body” like she does and am in awe of her body-speaking superpower. Likewise, over many years I have watched my husband construct furniture out of wood and grapple with the maths of angles and compound angles in his head. I understand the theory of compound angles as reflected on a two-dimensional page, but how do you actually build a stool with splayed legs that is balanced in 3D? I assure you it is much harder than you would imagine it to be, yet my husband does all of the visualisation of how to make this work in his head (often using his hands as a visual prompt for how something will fit together).

Many of the really fulfilling tasks of human life are experiential in nature. In theory (on paper) they would be tackled one way, but anyone who has actually tried to: build a business, make a garment, manage a team, fix something that has broken, or a million other things that humans want to do; knows that the actual doing of it was nothing like the theory. I would argue that the reading about things on paper is often but a pale and inaccurate copy of the multidimensional reality of it. Even the writing of poetry, or novels, or philosophy, or scientific papers, or mathematical equations, is first experiential in nature, and these things would be infinitely less complex and rewarding to read if the writer had not first lived and breathed, or deeply imagined, the experience of what they want to say. At their best, words and numbers can evoke an experience, or an understanding of something, but they are not that experience, or understanding of it, in and of itself. Focusing on the words and numbers (reading, writing and maths) as a higher priority on the learning hierarchy than the experience or understanding that those words and numbers are there to represent is, in my opinion, a fool’s endeavour.

So, what are the forms of learning that children prioritise in a natural (unhindered) learning environment? We have collected much experiential data on this over the years at Misty Meadows: Children love to move their bodies (all the time and in as many ways as possible: climbing, jumping, dancing, swinging, kicking, rolling), they love to interact with other humans of all ages, they like to listen to stories and songs and music and rhymes and to watch role plays (and make music and plays), they like to watch more experienced humans do things that they cannot yet do (and then copy them or use what they’ve seen as a starting point for a game or experiment that takes the concept further), they love to experiment with a wide range of tools and materials (often in ways that look destructive), they like to make hypotheses about how something might work (and to test and evolve these hypotheses repeatedly, often making a lot of mess in the process), they love building things in 3D (forts, blocks, lego, furniture, food, clothes, houses), they love being outside in nature and observing and participating with natural organisms and processes, they love to laugh and be silly and rude, and to test the boundaries of what is appropriate behaviour (often repeatedly). Very few children like to document their learning processes in an adult-approved step-by-step and methodical way, or to sit quietly to do so. Even those that do like to do this often don't do it on paper the way that schools force children to do it.

I know a lot of early childhood educators have observed the learning approaches I describe above, and have written extensively about prioritising these methods for preschoolers. Many of the best early childhood programmes now prioritise these ways of learning before children “go to big school” to learn “the important things”: reading, writing and maths. But what about children older than age 6? Do they suddenly shift gear and prefer to sit still at desks and learn almost exclusively from books?

Our experience at Misty Meadows points to the learning methods I describe above as actually being the preferred way that children learn naturally well beyond preschool, and even up until age 16 (and beyond). It might vary slightly on a case-by-case basis, but our lived experience at Misty Meadows now suggests that children naturally prefer to learn almost exclusively in the ways described above. When they choose to come to recognised “academic content” for the first time (often at around age 16) they are perfectly capable of learning for and passing the same school leaving exams as children who have spent 12 years at school desks learning someone else’s pre-determined curriculum out of books and on paper. And as more children pass through Misty Meadows at primary and high school level, I am becoming increasingly certain that they will surpass their peers in mainstream schooling on all of the skills and capacities now being recognised as necessary to thrive as humans in the Twenty First Century. Even the children who might never choose to focus on academic learning, or to obtain a recognised school leaving certificate, will be far better equipped to live a fulfilling and meaningful human life than are the readers who lost all interest in reading, or those who switched off their natural curiosity to survive 12 years of incarceration at mainstream school.

Isn’t it time we trusted children’s incredible abilities to learn so many multitudes of things in so many different ways. We need to make learning great again by getting our preconceived notions and limiting beliefs about learning out of children’s way. We need more group spaces for children’s natural learning to be nurtured and supported beyond their preschool years. Let us build learning ecosystems that allow more children to experience what might emerge from their “unhampered participation in a meaningful setting” (thank you Ivan Illich), rather than dictating what and how children must learn, and prioritising all the wrong things. I want to live in a world of humans who grew up learning naturally in this way… I think letting go of the dominant approach to (limiting) learning is a risk worth taking. Anyone else with me?

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